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US appellate court: Catholic school teachers are ministers

Catholic School Teacher desk

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J-P Mauro - published on 05/10/24

The court ruled that Catholic schools can choose teachers based on the faithful example they give, as they are ministers under the diocesan mission.

The US Court of Appeals has upheld the rights of Catholic schools to hire teachers who agree to uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith. This win for religious schools sets further precedent to protect their autonomy and continue to provide an authentically religious-based education. 

The case, Billard v. Diocese of Charlotte, revolved around a former substitute teacher, Lonnie Billard, who worked in the diocese’s schools. Billard sued the diocese when it stopped calling him in for work as a substitute after he entered a same-sex union and shared it on social media accounts, where he was friends with many of the schools’ faculty and parents. 

The Diocese of Charlotte, which has operated schools in North Carolina for 50 years and currently runs 20 schools, argued that all of their schools require teachers – both Catholic and non-Catholic – to uphold the Catholic faith in word and deed. This stipulation allows the school to ensure that the faith is upheld and passed down to students through the faithful example of teachers. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with this argument, reaffirming the diocese’s freedom to select teachers who act in line with the Catholic Church. 

Assistant Superintendent Allana Ramkissoon of the Diocese of Charlotte’s schools commented in a press release: 

“Many of our parents work long hours and make significant sacrifices so their children can attend our schools and receive a faithful Catholic education. That’s because we inspire our students not only to harness the lessons and tools they need to thrive, but to cherish their faith as a precious gift from God.”

The court based its ruling on the First Amendment requirement that civil courts “‘stay out’ of employment disputes involving ministers.” Billard, who had worked as a Catholic high school teacher for over a decade before becoming a substitute teacher in his retirement, was identified by the court as a minister because of the diocese’s requirement that its teachers “model and promote Catholic faith and morals.”

As a Catholic school teacher, Billard was considered to have a “vital role” in the school’s religious mission, and by extension the Church’s mission. The court noted that even though Billard taught drama and English, not specifically religious subjects, his position saw his curriculum pass through “consultation[s] with religious teachers to ensure that he was teaching through a faith-based lens.” Once his position was defined as a minister, the court could not let the suit proceed. 

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, representing the side of the diocese, commented: 

“The Supreme Court has been crystal clear on this issue: Catholic schools have the freedom to choose teachers who fully support Catholic teaching. This is a victory for people of all faiths who cherish the freedom to pass on their faith to the next generation.”

Tags:
EducationLawReligious FreedomUnited States
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