Oh no, not again: AP fails to ask school 'covenant' question in LGBTQ teacher case


I know. I know.

Trust me, I know that your GetReligionistas keep making the same point over and over when digging into mainstream news coverage of LGBTQ teachers (or people in other staff positions) who, after making public declarations of their beliefs on sex and marriage, lose their jobs in doctrinally defined private schools.

We keep making the point over and over because it's a crucial question when covering these stories. When are reporters and editors going to start asking the crucial question?

The question, of course, is this: Had the person who was fired voluntarily signed an employee lifestyle (or doctrinal) covenant in which they promised to support (or at least not openly oppose) the teachings at the heart of the religious school's work?

So here we go again, this time in an Associated Press report -- as printed at Crux -- about another conflict in Charlotte:

A gay teacher sued a Roman Catholic school on Wednesday for firing him after he announced his wedding to a man, the latest in a series of legal fights over anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
The lawsuit argues Charlotte Catholic High School violated federal employment law by firing Lonnie Billard from a substitute teaching role in 2014 after a Facebook post about his wedding. While the lawsuit doesn’t invoke state law, it comes amid protracted litigation over a North Carolina law limiting protections for LGBT people.
Billard taught English and drama full time at the school for more than a decade, earning its Teacher of the Year award in 2012. He then transitioned to a role as a regular substitute teacher, typically working more than a dozen weeks per year, according to the lawsuit.

Let me stress, as always, that journalists do not have to agree with a religious school's doctrines -- in this case Catholic -- in order to accurately cover these stories. You just have to realize that many if not most private schools, both liberal and conservative, have these kinds of covenants defending the faith that they claim to represent in their work.

Consider this, for example: What would happen at a liberal Jewish school if one of the teachers converted to Christianity, declared his or her status as a Messianic Jew and signed up with Jews For Jesus? The teacher might insist that he or she was still Jewish, but doesn't the school get to define the terms of its contracts and covenants?

In this Charlotte case, the word that caught my attention was "substitute," as in "substitute teacher." That adds a wrinkle to the questions that reporters must ask.

So basically we are looking at this equation: Does Charlotte Catholic School -- as is common in many Catholic schools -- ask employees to sign a doctrinal covenant linked to church teachings? If so, had Billard signed one in the past?

However, I would think that there is some chance that substitute teachers may not be asked to sign such a document. Maybe this teacher -- planning his marriage -- changed his status in order to fit into a different category, one not defined by a written, signed covenant.

Did anyone ask about that?

As is the norm, the story is essentially a dialogue between a school PR officer, or other church officials whose words end up printed on paper somewhere, and the teacher's legal team and advocates of his cause. That looks like this

[Billard] posted about his upcoming wedding in October 2014, and was informed by an assistant principal several weeks later that he no longer had a job with the school.
Not long after that, local diocese spokesman David Hains publicly stated that Billard was let go 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,” according to the lawsuit.
Hains said Wednesday that officials from the diocese hadn’t seen the lawsuit and typically don’t comment on pending litigation.
Billard’s lawyers argue the firing violates prohibitions against sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Wait a minute. Didn't someone at the Associated Press team, or journalists at papers linked to AP, call the diocese, ask new questions and get real quotes? Didn't someone get in a car and drive there and, after waiting in the lobby, earn the right to say "diocesan officials declined to respond to questions about the status and contents of the school's covenant documents"?

This could be a completely different case if the school does not require staffers to sign a doctrinal covenant or if the contents of that document are vague and meaningless.

If I was covering this story I would also check to see if the viewpoint of the school's leaders on covenant issues is different than that of the local bishop. That could lead to a tense silence in both the school offices and the diocesan offices -- but that tense silence would be big news.

In other words, if there was no doctrinal covenant, one signed by Billard, then isn't this a different kind of legal case?

One more question: Maybe the school -- prodded by church officials -- has a covenant now, but did not have one when Billard began his work on the campus. Check out this quote:

“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,” Billard said in a statement. “I have never hidden the fact that I’m gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school.”

Oh, one more thing. While the story discusses lots of legal and political angles linked to these issues, guess which U.S. Supreme Court case it does not mention? Here's the top of an earlier, but very relevant GetReligion post:

It's rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to produce a ruling backed with a 9-0 vote, especially on a church-state issue these days. However, that's what happened in 2012 with the case called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al (.pdf here).
The key was that the court said it was "extreme" and "remarkable" that the government thought it was wrong for religious groups to take doctrine and beliefs into account when hiring and firing their leaders. Thus, the court affirmed a "ministerial exception" that protects religious organizations from employment discrimination lawsuits.
Ah, but what is a "minister"? This is a crucial question that is affecting some emerging conflicts linked to gay rights and religious education, especially in Catholic schools.
The Hosanna-Tabor case focused on a teacher in a Lutheran school -- a school that blended church teachings into everything that it did. Thus, this teacher was also teaching doctrine, in word and deed. The school viewed all of its teachers this way.

One more time: Did the Charlotte school have a covenant that created this kind of clear, doctrinal link with its employees?

I know. I know. You'd think someone at AP would know the significance of a very recent 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

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