Moving Forward: What About LaBanca?
As discussed above, Matthew LaBanca married his boyfriend in August 2021, and two months later, LaBanca was fired from his position as the music director at Corpus Christi Church and as the music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Academy. According to a YouTube video posted by LaBanca, someone “in an act of righteousness” told Diocese officials that he had gotten married. The Diocese claimed that LaBanca was fired for failing to uphold the requirement that its employees comply with the teachings of the church, a church of which LaBanca considered himself to be a faithful member, at least up until this traumatic event.
Like in Billard’s case, however, LaBanca’s termination seems to be a clear case of employment discrimination based on sex. At the time of his firing, LaBanca was not engaging in any type of LGBTQ advocacy. As LaBanca explained in an interview with the New York Times, although he did not keep his sexual orientation a secret at work, he did not make a big deal of his wedding because he was aware of church teaching and respected that some people in the community may not understand his decision to marry. As LaBanca points out, “[t]here are many people whose lives don’t conform to church teachings. People who don’t go to church on Sunday. People who are on birth control. People who are divorced and get remarried.” The church, however, undoubtedly lets many of those employees go unpunished, lending support to the idea that his termination was based on sexual orientation and not simply motivated by religious teaching. Because his termination was based on sex, the Title VII exemption for religious discrimination should not apply. As the Billard court noted, to allow such application of the exemption would allow religious employers to evade liability by tying any type of discrimination claim to a religious motive and eliminate protection based on race, sex, and national origin.
Although overcoming the Title VII exemption is an important first step in a discrimination case, unfortunately, religious employers have other tools in their kit that they can use to evade Title VII liability. Most especially, religious employers argue that employment discrimination suits should be barred by the ministerial exception, which prevents the courts from entertaining employment disputes involving employees who fall into the category of “minister.” Recently, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court expanded the definition of “minister” to include elementary school teachers who, in addition to numerous secular duties, taught religion to their students, making it even harder for teachers at religious schools to challenge employment actions. Still, for LGBTQ claimants, getting the courts to recognize that discrimination is sex-based is an important step in fighting the battle against religious employers. If they can prove that the discrimination is sex-based and that no religious exemption applies, they have made it over the initial hurdle.
By continuing to engage in LGBTQ discrimination, religious employers harm the employees themselves and also deprive the community of passionate and talented teachers and workers. Instead of going to war over religious teachings about marriage, it would be nice if religious organizations would adopt, in the words of Pope Francis, a “who am I to judge?” approach. Realistically, however, at least for now, the work of protecting LGBTQ people must be done by the courts. Specifically, courts should not allow the Title VII religious exemption to overtake protections for LGBTQ individuals. If Congress had wanted to exempt religious organizations from all of the Title VII prohibitions, it could have done so, but it did not. The Supreme Court’s expression of protection for LGBTQ people in Bostock must mean something for those employed at religious institutions.