June 3, 2024Client Alert

Federal Appellate Court Overturns Trial Court in Favor of Religious Private School Due to Constitutional Ministerial Exception

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion on May 8, 2024 affirming the right of a religious school to part ways with a teacher over his planned same-sex marriage and reminding courts to “stay out” of ministerial hiring decisions.

In Billard v. Charlotte Catholic High School, the three-judge panel addressed the Constitutional “ministerial exception” first recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States in 2012.  While much of the opinion focuses on technical minutiae surrounding the rule, the panel reasserted key principles of the ministerial exception, including the lack of a “rigid formula” for determining when the rule applies, and the importance of keeping the courts away from litigating theology.


Lonnie Billard was an English and drama teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School (CCHS) for many years.  As a Catholic school, CCHS prohibited its employees from advocating for or engaging in conduct contrary to the moral teachings of the Catholic faith.  In 2014, Billard announced on social media his plans to marry his same-sex partner.  When CCHS learned of Billard’s announcement, the school “opted not to invite him back as a teacher.”

Billard sued in 2017, teeing up the question of whether his position was covered by the ministerial exception—a rule rooted in the religion clauses of the First Amendment that prevents courts and other civil authorities from interfering with personnel decisions that might turn on core ecclesiastical questions.  In its opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that Billard’s teaching position was covered by the ministerial exception, preventing the courts from second-guessing the school’s decision to terminate him.

The ministerial exception is not a “checklist” . . .

In assessing Billard’s job duties as a teacher, the judicial panel repeatedly emphasized that it does not follow a “rigid formula” to determine whether the ministerial exception applies.  Instead, courts must consider a “variety of factors” and “all relevant circumstances”, stating that “[t]he ministerial exception remains just that – an exception – and each case must be judged on its own facts to determine whether a ‘particular position’ falls within the exception’s scope.” 

The two most critical components of this analysis are: (1) What does the employee in question do; and (2) how do those responsibilities carry out the organization’s mission?  These questions are broad, and one could imagine many and varied responses.  And therein lies the problem:  if a court drills down further and names specific criteria, it risks accidentally excluding some denomination or faith.

. . . but common themes are emerging.

Even without the rigid formula, these ministerial exception cases are beginning to rhyme.  Many ministerial exception cases involve schools and teachers.  Why?  Because, as the court noted, “teachers are different” than other employees who might work for a religious institution, such as a groundskeeper or administrative assistant.  Private religious schools occupy a unique position in education, instructing students not only in secular subjects, but also “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith.”

A word of caution, however:  Another theme in these cases is that they generally arise in the context of faith traditions with robust written doctrinal standards.  For example, Billard assessed the faith commitments of a Catholic school and recited not only the school’s mission statement, but the Diocesan mission statement as well.  In its 2012 opinion recognizing the ministerial exception, the Supreme Court emphasized certain theological elements of the teacher’s role within the defendant Lutheran school.  The teacher was a “called” teacher with theological training, designated as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.”  And while the Supreme Court deemphasized the importance of certain of these facts in a later opinion, it did so while assessing yet another case involving a Catholic school.  What remains to be seen is how the courts will react to schools and organizations that lack such a close connection with a house of worship or a denominational body, or that lack the same degree of written doctrinal standards presented in these cases.

In this case, Billard was expected to teach "through a faith-based lens." He was not regularly engaged in teaching religion classes, but he was expected both to “conform [ ] his instruction to Christian thought” and to “be ready to instruct in religion as needed.”  The court considered these to be “relevant circumstance[s].”

As Billard and other cases make clear, employers wishing to invoke the ministerial exception must have clarity on their religious mission and its relationship to the duties of the excepted position.  And they should have that clarity on that relationship long before a dispute arises.  When those dots are connected clearly, a court is far more likely to heed the Supreme Court’s admonition to “stay out” of an employment dispute related to that position.

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