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Horton Law Firm Blog Teacher at Catholic School Can Be Fired for His Gay Marriage

 | Teacher at Catholic School Can Be Fired for His Gay Marriage

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes South Carolina) ruled last week in Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School that–pursuant to the “ministerial exception” to Title VII–a gay drama and English teacher (and sometimes substitute teacher for religion classes) at a Catholic high school can be fired for getting married to his partner. The Court found that Mr. Billard fell under the “ministerial exception,” which I’ll discuss below. In Mr. Billard’s case, he announced on Facebook in 2014 that he and his partner had gotten married. In response, the school opted not to invite him back as a teacher. He filed a lawsuit in 2017, alleging sex discrimination under Title VII. 

What is the Ministerial Exception to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act?

Under Title VII, an employee cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sex (also race, national origin, and religion). In Bostock v. Clayton County in 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes for purposes of Title VII sex discrimination cases. However, for cases involving religious institutions, there’s an exception. Referred to as the “ministerial exception,” it protects religious employers from discrimination claims. Also in 2020, the Supreme Court held in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court extended that exception beyond just “ministers” to now include teachers with religious duties. 

Interestingly, the school did not even invoke the protection of the ministerial exception at the trial court level. Instead, the school primarily argued that another exception–one that exempts religious institutions from Title VII with respect to employment of individuals of a particular religion. But the Fourth Circuit held that this exception only applies to claims of religious discrimination, not sex discrimination. Instead, the Fourth Circuit ruled that the ministerial exception could still be argued at the court of appeals level, and then went on to hold that the ministerial exception DID apply to Mr. Billard’s situation: “We conclude that the school entrusted Billard with ‘vital religious duties,’ making him a ‘messenger’ of its faith and placing him within the ministerial exception.”

Ultimately, because the ministerial exception applied, Mr. Billard could be fired without protection by Title VII, and his case was dismissed by the Fourth Circuit. It is possible that he asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision, but with the current conservative make-up of the Supreme Court, I would think that the Court likely upholds the Fourth Circuit’s decision. But we’ll provide updates if the appeal moves up further. 

Takeaways for South Carolina Employees

For South Carolina employees who work at religious institutions (churches and schools), this decision currently means that the employee can terminate South Carolina employees for being homosexual (and likely transgender), if the employee falls into the ministerial exception. It’s not clear if the exception applies to every employee all the way down to janitors and grounds crew, for instance, but to the extent that the employee is engaged in teaching students or otherwise providing any religious instruction, then I would expect that exception to be argued by the school, at the very least. 

For non-religious employers, the exception doesn’t apply at all, and companies cannot discriminate against a South Carolina for gender identity or sexual orientation. (Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), gender dysphoria is protected as a “disability,” and employees can seek reasonable accommodations if needed.) 

If you have been discriminated against on the basis of your sexual orientation or gender identity, then you should speak with a South Carolina employment lawyer about your situation in more detail. Feel free to reach out to our office with any questions. 

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