For the last four years, Flint Dollar has been teaching music at Mount de Sales Academy, a Catholic school in Macon, Ga. He is, by all accounts, beloved by his students.
But Dollar won’t be leading the band or teaching the chorus in the fall. His contract was not renewed after administrators found out he plans to marry a man.
Under federal anti-discrimination laws, employers are not prohibited from hiring or firing people on the basis of sexual orientation. Dollar is working to change that.
He says when he was hired, he was honest with school administrators about his sexual orientation. But a month ago, just as Dollar was letting his students out for summer, he was called to see the school president.
“When you’re called in the last part of the day on the last day of the week, it’s not a good sign,” Dollar says. “I was told that … the bishop of the Diocese of Savannah called and expressed his concern that if I was to return it would be against the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
What changed? Well, Dollar had announced on Facebook that he plans to marry his longtime partner in Minnesota this summer. The Catholic Church’s position against same-sex marriage is clear, and the Diocese says it supports the school in its decision to let Dollar go.
School officials, without addressing this case specifically, released a statement saying they have to consider an employee’s ability to teach Catholic doctrine when making staff decisions.
“I was told very specifically I didn’t do anything wrong, that there were no parent complaints, no student complaints, but regardless, I would not be returning,” Dollar says. “I’m still kind of processing that.”
Since neither federal law nor state law in Georgia expressly forbids employers from discriminating against gays, it initially seemed like there was nothing Dollar could do. But Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which turned 50 this week, does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Dollar’s lawyer, Charles Cox, sees an opening there.
“When you fire somebody because they are engaging in a same-sex marriage, I think that pretty clearly fits with gender discrimination,” Cox says. “You’re being fired because you’re not complying with traditional gender stereotypes, and that’s wrong, and we believe it’s unlawful.”
Enterprising lawyers have been making that argument since at least the 1990s, and federal courts have been saying “nice try” just as long. But in April, a judge in Washington made a ruling in a lawsuit brought by federal employee Peter TerVeer. TerVeer claims his supervisor at the Library of Congress made his work life miserable because TerVeer is gay.
LGBT rights attorney Greg Nevins, who is helping with TerVeer’s case, explains how TerVeer sued under Title VII:
“His romantic or intimate interest in men is something that the women workers at the office were not penalized for, but he was,” Nevins says. “He made that claim in federal district court, and the court allowed it to proceed, despite a motion to dismiss by the Department of Justice.”
Now the TerVeer case is giving hope to people like Dollar. He’s filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, alleging sex discrimination. Matthew Franck, a constitutional scholar at Princeton, says that might work — but it shouldn’t.
“I realize that in half a century a lot of judicial interpretation has gone into the application of Title VII,” Franck says, “but I think it’s fairly clear that Title VII’s reference to sex as a category of discrimination, that the people who wrote that had nothing like sexual orientation in their minds. It was not contemplated.”
The EEOC said in a 2012 case that discrimination against transgender people constitutes sex discrimination. Franck says he’s not a fan of that either, but he thinks it’s at least closer to the original intent of the Civil Rights Act.
Back in Georgia, Dollar is playing organ part-time at a Presbyterian church while he looks for a job and fights his case. He’s says getting his old position back is not the goal.
“I don’t want anybody else to have to go through what I’ve been through,” he says. “This last month has been up and down. It’s been painful. There are days that I don’t want to get out of bed.”
But as the courts keep rapidly changing the way they view sexual orientation, Dollar hopes that he may be among the last generation of people who risk losing their job because they’re gay.