CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A former Charlotte Catholic teacher is suing the high school and the Catholic diocese claiming he was fired after announcing his plans to marry his longtime same-sex partner.
Lonnie Billard filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning in federal court claiming the school, Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools (MACS) system, and the diocese discriminated against him, violating his civil rights.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the law firm Tin Fulton Walker & Owen.
According to the lawsuit, Billard taught drama and English at Charlotte Catholic for more than a decade, both full-time and as a long-term substitute teacher.
In 2012, Billard was named the school's Teacher of the Year after being nominated by students. The award came with a $10,000 cash prize and Billard was told by then-principal Jerry Healy he was the only teacher who had been nominated for the award every year since 2005.
Billard retired from full-time teaching later that year and became a regular substitute teacher.
In the lawsuit, Billard said he'd been living with his longtime partner, Richard Donham, since 2002. Donham reportedly attended school functions with Billard and "their relationship was common knowledge among the school's students, parents, alumni, staff, and administration."
In October 2014, after marriage for same-sex couples was legalized in North Carolina, Billard announced his plan to marry Donham.
"Everyone sing along…. 'Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna' get ma-a-aried. Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna' get maa-aa-ried'. Yes, I'm finally going to make an honest (at least legal) man out of Rich," he posted on Facebook on October 25, 2014. "We will be married on May 2, 2015… details to follow. I cannot believe that I am saying this or that it is even possible. I thank all the courageous people who had more guts than I who refused to back down and accept anything but 'equal'."
Billard said he received no negative feedback about the posting "on Facebook or anywhere."
Two months later, on Christmas Day, Billard said he and Donham were at a dinner with Charlotte Catholic alumni and employees when he was informed by a coworker the school's assistant principal told her Billard could no longer serve as a substitute at the school.
Billard, according to the lawsuit, text the assistant principal several days later asking about his status and received a phone call a few minutes later saying "the Diocese had instructed him that the school could no longer employ [Billard] because he announced on Facebook his intention to marry a same-sex partner."
David Hains, the Director of Communication for the Diocese of Charlotte, responded to the lawsuit Wednesday morning.
"The Diocese of Charlotte does not typically discuss ongoing litigation," Hains. "At this time, we have not seen the lawsuit."
But according to the lawsuit, Hains "stated publicly that [Billard] was terminated 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."
Hain continued to say that employing Billard "would be legitimating that relationship. The church would be saying it's OK, and it's not," according to the lawsuit.
"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 sent by the ACLU Wednesday morning. "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. I have never hidden the fact that I'm gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school. But whether or not the school previously knew that I am gay is not the point. People should be able to fall in love and get married without risking their jobs."
The lawsuit argues that Billard's firing violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex and other characteristics.
"Lonnie was fired because he announced his marriage to his longtime partner, who is a man, and that is sex discrimination, pure and simple," said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. "People should not be fired because of who they love. Even though Charlotte Catholic is a private religious school, it cannot illegally discriminate against an employee whose job was not religious."