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Gay High School Teacher Files Suit Against Charlotte Catholic Over Firing

Lonnie Billard, left, with his husband, Richard Donham, right.
Courtesy of Lonnie Billard
Lonnie Billard, left, with his husband, Richard Donham, right.

A former teacher of the year who was fired from Charlotte Catholic High School after announcing on Facebook that he was marrying his longtime same-sex partner filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing the school, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, and Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools of violating Title VII of Civil Rights Act.

Title VII is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interprets Title VII's prohibition of sex discrimination to also include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to the lawsuit, Lonnie Billard began work at Charlotte Catholic in 2000 as a substitute teacher. A year later, in 2001, he was hired as a full-time English and public speaking teacher. That same year, according to the lawsuit, Billard began a romantic relationship with his now-husband Richard Donham.

Following the 2001-02 school year, Billard accepted a position as the school's full-time theater teacher -- a position he would end up carrying out for the next ten years.

In 2012, Billard's final year as a full-time teacher, Billard was named teacher of the year after receiving student nominations, and, according to the lawsuit, then-principal Jerry Healy told Billard he was the only teacher to have been nominated for the award every year since its inception in 2005.

The following school year, Billard retired from teaching full-time, and became a regular substitute teacher with the school.

In October of 2014, following the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S., Billard and his partner Donham decided to get married. The announcement was made on Billard's Facebook page, reading in part, according to the lawsuit, "Yes, I'm finally going to make an honest (at least legal) man out of Rich. [...] I thank all the courageous people who had more guts than I who refused to back down and accept anything but 'equal'. Ps. If you don't agree with this... keep it to yourself. You never asked my opinion about your personal life and I am not asking yours."

Two months later, on Christmas Day, Billard says he learned that his employment had been terminated, and in a phone conversation some days later with the school's assistant principal, Billard says he was informed it was in response to his post on Facebook.

In January 2015, the Diocese's Director of Communications, David Hains, repeated that answer to a Buzzfeed News reporter, saying Billard was fired for "going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship, and saying it in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church."

In his lawsuit, Billard is seeking back pay and benefits, an order restraining the high school and the Diocese from engaging in future discriminatory conduct, and his reinstatement as a substitute teacher, among other relief.

"I loved being part of the Charlotte Catholic school community, and the classroom has always felt like home to me," Billard said in a statement, "I know that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, but I don't think my commitment to my husband has any bearing on my work in the classroom."

Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte said he had not yet seen the lawsuit, and that the diocese typically does not comment on ongoing litigation.

The lawsuit was filed by the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Billard in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.

Copyright 2017 WFAE

WFAE's Nick de la Canal can be heard on public radio airwaves across the Charlotte region, bringing listeners the latest in local and regional news updates. He's been a part of the WFAE newsroom since 2013, when he began as an intern. His reporting helped the station earn an Edward R. Murrow award for breaking news coverage following the Keith Scott shooting and protests in September 2016. More recently, he's been reporting on food, culture, transportation, immigration, and even the paranormal on the FAQ City podcast. He grew up in Charlotte, graduated from Myers Park High, and received his degree in journalism from Emerson College in Boston. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
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