In 2014, Charlotte Catholic High School declined to continue Lonnie Billard’s employment as a substitute drama teacher after he publicly announced, via Facebook, that he and his same-sex partner were getting civilly married. Billard sued the school in the Western District of North Carolina for unlawful employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act due to his sexual orientation. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Billard. The court first held that the high school’s actions could constitute unlawful sex discrimination in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County. The district court then rejected the high school’s argument that it qualifies under Title VII’s coreligionist exemptions in sections 702 and 703. Finally, the court turned to the “ministerial exception” doctrine. This doctrine states that courts are barred from adjudicating employment disputes between religious organizations and ministerial employees. In this case, the court noted that “very few facts weigh in favor of finding that [Billard] is a minister.” He was not held out by the school as a minister, he did not teach religion, and he was not responsible for the religious upbringing of the students. But the school had one final argument: that the ministerial exception is grounded in a broader “church autonomy doctrine” that generally protects religious institutions from governmental interference in their internal affairs, including in employment decisions. Because Char-lotte Catholic High School let go of Billard for primarily religious reasons, the argument goes, even if Billard is not a minister, the school should be immune from Title VII discrimination suits. This case illustrates a very important question left unanswered by the Supreme Court following its landmark decisions in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru: Do religious institutions have any First Amendment protection in employment cases outside the ministerial exception? This Note seeks to answer that question.
Athanasius G. Sirilla,
The "Nonministerial" Exception,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol99/iss1/8