On May 8, 2024, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a monumental opinion in Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School. Senior Judge Harris, joined by Judge Niemeyer, wrote the majority opinion. Judge King concurred in the judgment but dissented from the opinion. The Court greatly expanded which employees are exempt from federal civil rights laws under the “ministerial exception.”

The United States Supreme Court first recognized the ministerial exception in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). The Court held that a faith institution’s “ministers” are exempt from federal civil rights laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, due to First Amendment protections for free exercise of religion. The Court’s later decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020), expanded the ministerial exception to include any employee that advances a religious institution’s mission.

In Billard, Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS) employed the plaintiff, Lonnie Billard, as a drama and English teacher. CCHS and Billard both conceded that Billard was a lay teacher, in that he was not an ordained priest in the Catholic Church. Billard’s lessons did adhere to religious doctrine, and he closely worked with CCHS’s religion instructors to ensure continuity in message. Billard openly identified as a gay man. When CCHS and the Diocese learned of Billard’s desire to enter into a same-sex marriage, he was not invited to return as a teacher at CCHS.

Billard sued CCHS under Title VII. Both parties moved for summary judgment in the district court. CCHS waived the ministerial exception as a defense. Instead, CCHS argued, among other things, that Title VII’s exemption for discrimination by a religious institution protected its decision to terminate Billard, even if the decision was based on Billard’s sexual orientation and not his religion.  CCHS also argued that Title VII’s exemption should apply based on the strict scrutiny standard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

The District Court rejected CCHS’s defenses and granted summary judgment in favor of Billard. The District Court also stated that Billard would not have been a “minister, subject to the ministerial exception,” had the issue been in front of the District Court.

After affirming the District Court’s decision that CCHS’s Title VII and RFRA arguments were erroneous, the Fourth Circuit confronted two main issues: 1) can a court consider the ministerial exception even if waived and 2) if a court can, is there a class of employees that falls within the exception?

Turning to the first issue, the Fourth Circuit held that, assuming a party can waive the ministerial exception defense at all, a court can, sua sponte, resurrect it. The Court reasoned that, when a defense is so tied to structural constitutional issues, a court can consider it even if waived.

Second, the Court found that, generally, any employee that is advancing the religious teachings of a religious institution are “ministers” exempt from federal civil rights laws. In reaching this conclusion, the Court reasoned, “Billard falls in precisely the category of people whose ministerial status Our Lady of Guadalupe seems most likely to affect: educators in religious schools who primarily teach secular subjects.”[1] This is an important expansion of the exception. It would appear that any lay instructor at a parochial school would qualify. Perhaps even the choir director or organist.

The Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision and granted summary judgment to CCHS.

The Billard decision greatly expands the number of employment decisions subject to the ministerial exception. It also greatly narrows the reach of Title VII into places of worship.

[1] Slip op. at 18.