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Gay teacher files suit, claiming his sexual orientation cost him his job

Michael Gordon, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in News & Features

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A former teacher of year at Charlotte Catholic High says he lost his last job as a substitute with the school after a 2014 Facebook post announcing his wedding plans to his longtime male partner.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Lonnie Billard accuses of the school, the city's Catholic school system, and the Diocese of Charlotte with illegally discriminating again him because of his sexual orientation.

According to the complaint, which was filed by the state's office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Billard wants back pay and benefits, punitive damage, compensatory damages for emotional distress and a court order blocking the school and Catholic leaders from taking similar punitive actions in the future.

Billard would also like the school to start using him as a substitute again.

"I was absolutely stunned by what the school did. I didn't expect it," Billard told the Charlotte Observer. "But the more I thought about it, I realized I had done nothing wrong. I loved being a teacher. I loved being the classroom. Me being a teacher and Rich (Donham) being a part of my life were all intertwined."

David Hains, a diocesan spokesman, said the diocese "does not typically discuss ongoing litigation. At this time, we have not seen the lawsuit."

Billard, after a career in banking, became a full-time faculty member at Charlotte Catholic in 2001, the same year he became involved with Donham. A year later, he became the school's theater teacher and Donham and he began living together, the lawsuit says. Billard was named the school's Teacher of the Year in 2012. At that time, he was told by then Principal Jerry Healy that he had been the only teacher nominated every year the award had been in place, according to the suit.

He retired after the 2012 school year, but continued working at the school as a substitute teacher. He says he never tried to hide the fact that he was gay, adding that Donham often accompanied him to school events and was well-known in the Charlotte Catholic students, teachers, parents and administrators.

In the fall of 2014, after the Supreme Court's decision striking down the federal ban on same-sex marriage, Billard says he and Donham decided to wed the following spring.

That Oct. 25, Billard posted the wedding announcement on Facebook. "Yes, I'm finally going to make an honest (at least legal) man out of Rich," he wrote. "I thank all the courageous people who had more guts than I who refused to back down and accept anything but 'equal.'"

On Christmas Day, according to the complaint, Billard learned that he had lost his job as a substitute. An assistant principal later told him that the diocese had ordered his "termination" due to the Facebook post, the suit said. On Jan. 9, Hains told Charlotte media that Billard had been let go "for going on Facebook, entering in a same-sex relationship and saying in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The diocese, an outspoken supporter of traditional marriage, had cited similar reasons two years earlier after the firing of Steav Bates-Congdon, a longtime music director at St. Gabriel Church, who posted photos from his out-of-state, same-sex marriage on his Facebook page.

ACLU State Legal Director Chris Brook says in this case religious organizations are not immune from the ban against workplace sex discrimination outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

"The school has a right to its religious beliefs," he told the Observer. "It does not have the right to ignore Title VII."

Billard said his adherence to Catholic doctrine "was never a part of the employment process."

"I was interviewed about my qualifications to be in the classroom. There was absolutely nothing said about 'Are you gay or are you straight?' Although it didn't take very long for people to figure that out," he said. "In the classroom, there was nothing about the Catholic religion. I taught the curriculum. I taught what was in the books."

Brook argues that other employees of the school violate Catholic teachings about divorce and other spiritual matters. "Lonnie was the only one fired."

According to the lawsuit, Billard filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May 2015. The agency said Billard had a right to sue last Nov. 30.

Given the diocese's outspoken support for the state's former ban on same-sex marriage, Billard was asked if he had any concerns posting his wedding plans when that ban was still in place.

"Did I think they would be delighted? No," Billard said. "But I didn't see how that had anything to do with my job. I wasn't working for a church. In my mind, I was working for a school."

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