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NEW YORK – A religious freedom attorney warns that if a recent federal judge decision against the Diocese of Charlotte holds, religious institutions could face “massive financial penalties” for simply forming communities around their shared beliefs and practices.

U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. ruled on Sept. 3 that the Diocese of Charlotte violated workplace discrimination laws when it fired a longtime teacher after he announced on Facebook that he was marrying his partner, who is also a man.

Cogburn’s ruling resolved the question of liability in the case, saying the Diocese of Charlotte violated the law, but didn’t resolve the question of damages. The Diocese of Charlotte can also still appeal the ruling, though it has yet to do so.

If that happens, the case’s next stop is the Fourth Circuit Court of appeals. If it’s upheld there, the diocese could then appeal to the Supreme Court.

Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty law firm told Crux that if a scenario unfolds where this decision is upheld, religious institutions “have to choose whether they’re going to adhere to their millennial practices of asking employees to adhere to particular religious belief and practices, or else face multi-million-dollar liabilities.”

“Any individual who was dismissed from employment because of their unwillingness to adhere to the group’s religious beliefs and practices [could file a lawsuit],” Goodrich said. “Even if you hadn’t been employed there, you could say the employment practices are discriminatory because you wouldn’t hire someone in my position.”

The Diocese of Charlotte said in a statement that it “respectfully disagrees with the district court’s decision, and it’s considering next steps.”

“The First Amendment, federal law, and recent Supreme Court decisions all recognize the rights of religious organizations to make employment decisions based on religious observance and preference,” the diocesan statement said. “They do not – and should not – compel religious schools to employ teachers who publicly contradict their teachings.”

Lonnie Billard, the plaintiff in the case, was fired from Charlotte Catholic High School in 2014 after the Facebook announcement. At that point in his career, he was a substitute teacher. He was a full-time drama and English teacher at the school from 2001-2012.

Billard filed the lawsuit in 2017. After the Sept. 3 ruling, he said he had a “sense of relief and a sense of vindication,” adding that the judge’s decision validates that he “did nothing wrong by being a gay man.”

Others also applauded the ruling. American Jesuit Father James Martin, who is steadfast in his support and outreach to LGBTQ, said the Catholic Church needs to stop targeting LGBTQ employees.

“If we fired everyone whose life does not ‘fully convey and support’ church teaching our institutions would be devoid of employees,” Martin wrote in a social media post. “We would have to fire every Protestant, Jew, Muslim and agnostic, as well as anyone who used birth control, didn’t help the poor, didn’t forgive, or missed Mass on Sundays.”

“The selective targeting of LGBTQ people is ‘unjust discrimination,’ which the Catechism forbids,” Martin continued.

Goodrich suspects, however, that the nation’s high court would be unlikely to uphold the ruling if it went that far, citing four legal protections that exist to protect religious institutions.

The autonomy doctrine allows the religious institution to address a person’s employment as a matter of church governance or church discipline even if the employee is not a minister, and the freedom of expressive association is rooted in the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

Goodrich also says the Diocese of Charlotte is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the federal Title VII religious exemption that allows religious organizations to hire people who adhere to their religious beliefs and practices.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru that, “religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission.”

In the majority decision siding with the Catholic school, Justice Samuel Alito said, “Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg