Lonnie Billard got an unexpected phone call over the holidays. It was an official from Charlotte Catholic High School, his employer, saying that he could no longer teach.
The 68-year-old English and drama instructor told BuzzFeed News he was stunned by the call, in part because he has given a lifetime of Catholic service, and, moreover, because he has been partnered publicly with his boyfriend for more than a decade. He has introduced Rich Donham "as my partner. We do all the things that couples do,” said Billard, including attend Catholic mass and school functions as a couple. “Parents knew him. Teachers knew him. The administration knew him.”
But after Billard announced on Facebook that he and his partner would get married in May 2015, the Catholic diocese that also oversees the school and parish he attends, St Peter’s in Charlotte, said his 13-year career teaching at the school was over. Now, Billard told BuzzFeed News, “I don’t feel very welcome in my own church.”
So Billard is leaving the Catholic Church.
“I am not going to give my time, my talent, or my treasure to a bigoted organization,” he said in a phone call this week. For the first time, he and his fiancé attended an Episcopalian service this past Sunday instead.
Billard’s firing illustrates a growing chasm between rhetoric and practices inside Christianity’s largest denomination, which includes an estimated 78 million total members in the United States. Although the Catholic Church is overseen by a pope who famously asked last year, “Who am I to judge” gay people, homosexuality is still considered a “disorder” by the church’s core doctrines. And many dioceses in America’s conservative states — including North Carolina, where a federal judge in October made same-sex marriage legal — still apply strict rules to gay employees and same-sex couples.
“I guess I was stupid enough to think [the pope’s statements] would be the prevailing politic on gay people,” Billard said.
Speaking for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, David Hains insisted Billard was not fired simply for being homosexual but for violating Catholic teachings so publicly. “His gayness is not in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Hains said, citing a doctrine that says gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” He said Billard veered too far by “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.”
Promoting same-sex marriage plans amounts to a “public dissing of church teaching that he agreed not to do” as part of his employment agreement, said Hains. Keeping him on staff “would be legitimating that relationship. The church would be saying it’s OK, and it’s not.”
Jim Smith, the associate director of DignityUSA, a seminal LGBT Catholic group, said, “People should not be blindsided or presume that just because the pope says this or that, that we are home free. These firings continue to happen.”
In recent years: A Catholic school near Seattle fired a vice principal after learning he married his boyfriend, a Catholic school in New York City fired a teacher who came out as transgender, and a diocese in Michigan fired a female teacher — who is married to a woman — on moral grounds after she received in vitro fertilization. Charlotte Catholic High School was also embroiled in controversy when it brought in a nun who made offensive comments about gay people, and the Charlotte diocese fired a parish's music director when he had a same-sex wedding.
Speaking again for his diocese, Hains said the hierarchy took an equally tough stand with straight employees who cohabited as a couple outside of marriage. “They either had to get married or find a new job,” he said.
But Billard, who was named “Teacher of the Year” three years ago, rebuts every count. He said he has announced his sexual orientation on Facebook for years by referring to Rich as “my sweetie or my love, my man. I posted that we bought this house. I posted that our grandkids are coming to stay with us this weekend. You’d have to be a complete freaking idiot to not understand that [we are a gay couple].” He said he suspects that a handful of conservative teachers reacted negatively to the marriage announcement and reported him to local church hierarchy.
Church teachings also condemn divorce and marrying outside the faith, Billard pointed out, but said the school employs straight people who are divorced or married to non-Catholics. “If you are going to enforce one thing, you darn well better enforce the entire thing,” said Billard.
Billard and Hains also disagree about who made the decision to fire him. Billard said he was told the decision came from the diocese, which is run by the parochial bishop. Hains said he believes the school made the call. “ But,” Hains added, “if it had been brought to our attention, the decision would have been the same.”
High school officials did not return calls seeking comment.
A substitute teacher for the past three years after teaching full time at the high school for a decade, Billard said 50 teachers and many parents contacted him with regrets about his firing. “I have had literally hundreds of kids contact me, all in support.”
“The things that the church says that they believe are really not true,” he reflected. “It is not about compassion anymore. It is not about understanding. It is not about being Christ-like. When you get to the very core of the belief it says these things but it practices another. I can’t go to church and erase that from my mind.”
Smith, a Catholic himself speaking for DignityUSA, said that firing “gifted, dedicated Catholics” is “a wound on the entire body of Christ.” But he speculated the church’s motivation is not just religious but political.
“I have seen bishops and dioceses circle their wagons around this issue,” Smith said, “thinking that the more they can nip this in the bud, the greater chances they have of eradicating the progressive LGBT and ally voices in the church. But the more they attempt to circle their wagons, the greater our efforts will become to create a more welcoming church.”