A judge has ruled that Fuller Theological Seminary can expel students who have engaged in extramarital activity or have entered a same-sex marriage, and still receive federal funding.
Two former students expelled for being in same-sex marriages filed suit against the California-based evangelical school, claiming that the standards violated Title IX Civil Rights law.
United States District Judge Consuelo Marshall granted Fuller’s motion to dismiss the suit on Wednesday, ruling that the seminary met the standards for a religious exemption to Title IX.
“Here, although the text of the Religious Organization Exemption may be read to require the ‘religious organization’ and ‘educational institution’ to be two separate entities, the ordinary meaning of the term ‘organization’ is sufficiently broad to include [Fuller’s] board of directors,” wrote Marshall.
“… the Title IX claim seeks to hold FTS liable for expelling Plaintiffs for entering same-sex marriages, which are contrary to the school’s religious tenets. Thus, the Religious Organization Exemption applies.”
Daniel Blomberg, senior attorney at Becket, a law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases and which represented Fuller, celebrated the district court ruling in a statement released Thursday.
A photo of Joanna Maxon, who filed a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary in November 2019 for expelling her due to her being in a same-sex marriage. | Courtesy Paul Southwick
“This is a huge win for seminaries, yeshivas, madrasas, and every other religious institution of higher education,” stated Blomberg.
“That’s because houses of worship, and not government officials, should be deciding how to teach the next generation of religious leaders.
Last November, former Fuller student Joanna Maxon sued the nondenominational seminary, claiming that the school had violated Title IX when expelling her for being in a gay marriage.
“Defendants discriminated against Mrs. Maxon based on her sexual orientation because it expelled Mrs. Maxon for entering into a civil same-sex marriage,” read the suit.
“Defendants also discriminated against Mrs. Maxon based on her sex and sexual orientation by subjecting her to stricter disciplinary action than Fuller would have subjected a male, heterosexual student.”
Nathan Brittsan, another former student expelled for being in a same-sex marriage, joined the lawsuit in January, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Passed in 1972, Title IX reads: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Although federal civil rights law originally meant for “sex” to refer to biological sex, a recent United States Supreme Court decision regarding Title VII changed that understanding.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that Title VII’s definition of “sex” applied to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The statute’s message for our cases is equally simple and momentous: An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions,” read the majority opinion in part.
“That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”