Politics & Government

Should Catholic churches, schools be able to fire gay employees who marry their partners?

Bishop Peter Jugis said it would be a “scandal” for Charlotte’s Catholic churches and schools to continue employing anyone who marries a same-sex partner – or publicly announces plans to do so. And the mission of the 46-county diocese he leads would be “irreparably damaged,” the bishop added, if a court ruled it could not fire such employees.

Jugis, who usually lets diocesan spokesman David Hains do the talking for him in public, made these and other comments during recent sworn testimony in the federal court case of Lonnie Billard. A former Teacher of the Year at Charlotte Catholic High School, Billard sued the school and the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte following his 2014 firing for announcing wedding plans with his longtime male partner on Facebook.

The Charlotte case pits two competing claims – Billard’s charge of workplace discrimination vs. Jugis’ argument for religious freedom – and could help decide whether churches and religious schools can continue to fire gay employees for marrying their partners or even for publicly acknowledging a sexual relationship with them.

Jugis insists that even non-Catholic employees like Billard should lose their jobs if they publicly contradict – in word or action – church teaching against homosexual behavior.

Billard’s lawyers, including some from the national ACLU, argue that he is a teacher, not a minister, so should be protected by federal laws forbidding workplace discrimination on the basis of sex.

“There’s an exceptionally important point at stake in this case: Whether employers can fire secular employees because they are gay. Period.,” says Chris Brook, North Carolina legal director of the ACLU, and one of Billard’s attorneys in the case, which has begun drawing commentary from legal experts around the country.

“It’s absurd,” Brook added, “to think that you can get married on Sunday and fired on Monday because you have a picture of your same-sex spouse on your desk at work.”

More than 100 employees of Catholic institutions in the United States have been fired in the past three years for being gay or marrying same-sex partners, the Catholic LGBTQ rights group, DignityUSA, recently told the New York Times.

Billard, who found out about his firing on Christmas Day 2014, told the Observer this week that his spouse, Rich Donham, was a familiar figure around Charlotte Catholic High while the two men were dating.

“The people I worked with, from the administration, fellow teachers, as well as parents and students, knew that I was gay and that I was in a relationship with Rich before we were allowed to be married,” he said. “And nothing was ever said, and nothing was ever done, until I went public.”

Jugis, in his sworn testimony, or deposition, on Aug. 14, said it was important for the church to act when employees go public with their disagreement over “fundamental moral tenets” of the Catholic Church – by, say, sharing their same-sex wedding plans on Facebook.

In fact, Jugis said, there would be “scandal” if the diocese did not officially respond to such a “contradictory message” from an employee.

Under questioning, Jugis, who is a canon lawyer in the Catholic Church, defined scandal in this case as “where some behavior or action which is wrong offends an innocent person such that they would be led astray into thinking, if there was no response from some person in authority, that this activity was acceptable.”

The Billard case, which is before U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney in Charlotte, is playing out at a time when a divided Catholic Church is debating whether or not to be more welcoming to LGBTQ persons.

Catholic teaching says that homosexual acts are sinful, and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. But the tone, if not the teaching, has changed somewhat under Pope Francis. Though the pontiff has reiterated support for traditional marriage only, he has urged a less dogmatic, more welcoming approach to groups that have long felt ostracized by the church – including gays and lesbians.

Many in his flock go even further: A June poll by the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life shows that more than two-thirds of Catholics now support same-sex marriage.

The split within the church over the issue was on a full display recently in the controversy that greeted a new book, “Building a Bridge,” by the Rev. James Martin, in which he called on Catholic leaders to be more inclusive to the LGBTQ community.

After the book was published, a national seminary affiliated with the Catholic University of America, rescinded its invitation for Martin to speak to a group of alumni. But then Martin was publicly invited by Cardinal Blase Cupich – one of Pope Francis’ top appointees in the United States – to address his Chicago archdiocese.

Martin, a Jesuit priest who was recently appointed a Vatican adviser by the pope, recommends several practical steps in his book. Among them: Stop firing LGBTQ people from church positions.

“Of course church organizations have the authority to require their employees to follow church teachings,” Martin wrote. “The problem is that this authority is applied in a highly selective way. ... Do we fire a straight man or woman who get divorced and then remarries without an annulment? ... How about a person who is living with someone without being married? Those actions are against church teaching, too.”

Billard said some of his co-workers openly broke with other church teachings but were never disciplined.

“Scandal?” he said. “The fact that I happen to love another person and that person happens to be another man – I don’t see that as scandalous.”

Legal and spiritual issues

Whether the firings of Billard and others violated legal protections against workplace discrimination are being decided by courts in Charlotte and around the country.

Lawyers in the Billard case don’t disagree over the facts of the case, just how the law should be applied.

Religious organizations have what is known as a “ministerial exception,” which gives them broad protection from discrimination claims in the hiring and firing of employees essential to their spiritual activity. The Charlotte Diocese, however, has waived the exemption in the Billard case.

That, argues Billard’s defense team, gives the former teacher legal protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans workplace discrimination.

“As a matter of law, firing a person because of their marriage to a same-sex partner discriminates on the basis of sex under Title VII,” Billard’s attorneys said in a filing this week. Religious employers, they argued, “can’t discriminate on the basis of sex even when that discrimination is motivated by sincere religious beliefs.”

Charlotte lawyer John McDonald, who is representing the diocese, said Monday his client had no comment at this time.

But in a Thursday filing, the diocesan defense team said Billard’s complaint goes beyond previous court rulings.

“When the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage ... it made clear that recognition of this new right would not end religious organizations’ ability to teach and practice the Christian view of human sexuality,” the filing says. “Billard asks the court to ignore this promise. Rather than recognizing defendants’ constitutional and statutory rights to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs, Billard asks the court to force defendants to employ persons who publicly oppose their message and mission.”

Likewise, Robert Destro, a professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, challenges the notion that same-sex marriages are protected under sexual discrimination laws.

“The question of whether or not certain marriages are legitimate, whether certain relationships are consistent with the moral teachings of the church, has nothing to do with the definition of ‘sex,’ ” Destro told the Catholic News Agency in January. “It’s pretty clear from the law that the schools have the right and obligation to stay in control of their curriculum.”

Jugis said in his deposition that all employees of the Charlotte diocese agree when hired “to respect, appreciate and uphold the teachings, principles, legislation, policies and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in both word and deed,” as it says in the diocese’s personnel handbook.

That includes non-Catholic employees, the bishop said.

Billard, who says he’s Episcopalian, was a full-time teacher at Charlotte Catholic High for more than a decade, then worked as a part-time substitute teacher at the school until he was fired.

Jugis acknowledged under questioning by an ACLU lawyer that the diocese does not specifically ask potential employees about personal issues, such as their sexual orientation or whether they use contraception – also against church teaching.

“The presumption is that people are not involved, engaged, in immoral behavior,” he said. “We presume people are good and moral, and those are the people we want.”

But he called same-sex marriage “a public act,” and a contradiction of “natural law that (says) marriage is a union of one man and one woman.”

Jugis was appointed in 2003 by then-Pope John Paul II, a fellow conservative. Since then, the Charlotte-born bishop, now 60, has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage.

In 2012, he helped lead the fight to pass Amendment One, which affirmed in the N.C. Constitution a state law banning same-sex marriage. It was later thrown out by federal courts, and same-sex marriage was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also in 2012, Charlotte’s St. Gabriel Catholic Church, one of the diocese’s largest parishes, fired Steav Bates-Congdon, a longtime music director, after he posted photos from his out-of-state, same-sex wedding on his Facebook page.

And last year, a singer’s invitation to perform at a Catholic Charities event in Asheville was revoked after Jugis saw a magazine article in which Kat Williams said she and her wife had been married for seven years.

Jugis also reinforced the Catholic Church’s support for traditional marriage in 2015 by forcing St. Peter’s Catholic Church in uptown to dis-invite a nun who’d been scheduled to speak to parents of LGBTQ persons.

But some other Catholic bishops in the Pope Francis era have reached out to the LGBTQ community.

In May, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who heads the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., welcomed 100 gay and lesbian Catholics and their families to the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in June.

“These are people who have not felt welcome in other places. My prayer for them is that they do (here),” he said. “And I’m praying that this pilgrimage for them, and really for the whole church, is a reason for hope.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS