Crime & Courts

Posted wedding plans cost Charlotte teacher his job

Charlotte Catholic High has cut ties with a longtime teacher after he used Facebook to announce plans to marry his male partner.

Lonnie Billard, 68, taught theater and English at the south Charlotte school from 2000 to 2012. After he retired, the lifelong Catholic remained on campus as a popular and frequently used substitute teacher.

Last fall, however, Billard announced his plans on Facebook to marry Rich Donham, his partner of 12 years.

On Dec. 30, Billard said he received a call from Charlotte Catholic Assistant Principal Steve Carpenter saying that he would no longer be called in to teach. The reason: His posted wedding plans publicly violated Catholic Church teachings on marriage.

Billard said Tuesday he remains stunned.

“This is sort of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” said Billard, who contends that his sexuality was well known by school officials, fellow teachers and many of his students and their families.

“My response is that if I am in defiance of Catholic teachings – and I probably am – then how do you account for employing teachers who use birth control? How do you account for teachers who divorce and remarry without the blessing of the church?

“It was fine when I was living with my partner. But I was wrong when I said we were getting married? The hypocrisy is ridiculous.”

David Hains, a spokesman with the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said the Facebook posting violated the agreement Billard and all diocesan employees sign in which they promise not to publicly oppose church doctrine.

“You basically don’t want the guy working for Coca-Cola to walk around with a Pepsi in his hand,” Hains said.

The Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a holy sacrament reserved for a man and a woman. The diocese has been outspoken on this front – contributing money and volunteers to help pass the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2012.

Last year, the federal courts threw out the amendment as discriminatory. Gay marriages in North Carolina became legal in October. While the legal fight continues, Billard said he and Donham, like dozens of same-sex couples before them, plan to exchange vows in Charlotte on May 3.

In 2012, St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte fired Steav Bates-Congdon after the parish’s longtime music director posted photos on Facebook of his New York wedding to his male partner.

Both decisions have drawn emotional debates from Catholics on both sides of the marriage issue. Billard says he has been overwhelmed by the support of his former colleagues and students.

The Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C., has also weighed in, condemning the decision “as evidence of the church’s continued efforts to keep workers in the closet.”

Said Billard: “I’m 68. Nobody is going to shove me back in that damn closet.

“I understand totally that the diocese is within its rights to do this, I know that,” he added. “.. But this is not right. The pope just recently said that if you’re gay and you’re seeking Christ, ‘Who am I to judge?’ I guess this diocese has not gotten that message.”

Since Pope Francis became head of the worldwide church, he has challenged its leaders and 1 billion members to set a more welcoming tone for gays.

Hains, a frequent spokesman for Bishop Peter Jugis, said the decision to stop using Billard as a substitute teacher – which he said was made by the school, not the diocese – in no way contradicts church teaching.

“Marriage is between one man and one woman, this goes back to Genesis,” he said. “While the Holy Father has had some wonderfully pastoral things to say, he certainly has not changed church thinking on this subject.” Researcher Maria David contributed.

(Editor’s note: The online version of this story was updated on Jan. 14 to remove part of a quote after diocesan spokesman David Hains said his misspoke in describing policies requiring employees to follow church doctrine.)