Experts warn this lawsuit may carry larger implications for a host of religious colleges and universities across the country . . .
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California will now have to face two plaintiffs who alleged discrimination when the school expelled them both for being in a same-sex marriage.
This past November, former 53-year-old graduate student Joanna Maxon filed suit against the college, claiming that “Fuller accepts federal funding and doesn’t have a religious exemption under Title IX.”
She began attending Fuller in 2015 by taking online courses while attending classes at the school’s regional campus in Texas in hopes of working toward a master of arts in theology degree in order “to become a better supervisor.” After three years into the program, however, the school expelled her allegedly for being in a same-sex relationship, forcing her to repay her federal loans prematurely and “reassess her professional goals.”
Two months later, another plaintiff has joined Maxon’s lawsuit: Nathan Brittsan, who claims the school expelled him in 2017 after learning of his same-sex marriage. They are seeking $2 million in damages. More from Pasadena Now:
In the amended complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court Tuesday, Brittsan, a pastor and Fuller graduate student, joined plaintiff Maxon, an online graduate student, who filed the original case in December of 2019.
The lawsuit appears to be the first one filed by a student expelled from a U.S. institution of higher learning for being in a same-sex marriage and could carry larger implications for a host of religious colleges and universities across the country.
However religious institutions appear to be entitled to some exemptions from Title IX nondiscrimination rules. The protection to those institutions is broad, some legal experts say.
Attorney Paul Southwick said the amended lawsuit is “a civil rights case about two students who were expelled from their graduate program for one reason: they married someone of the same sex.”
Brittsan, a pastor, claimed in the lawsuit that he hoped to use the degree “to advance his career within his denomination,” which was put on hold for over a year following his expulsion due to his use of federal funds. The expulsion letter that Brittsan received in 2017 explicitly stated he was being dismissed “on the basis of a violation of the Sexual Standards component of Fuller’s Community Standards.”
Fuller Theological Seminary, however, maintains that, as a Christian institution, the school informs all students and faculty of explicit guidelines and standards of conduct for them to abide by when applying to attend.
“As a historically multi-denominational seminary and a convening place for civil dialogue — with a commitment to academic freedom — we strive to serve the global Christian church in its various perspectives,” the school said in a statement. “We remain committed to these relationships in all their complexities while maintaining community standards and a statement of faith that apply to various areas of beliefs and behavior. Students are informed of and explicitly agree to abide by these standards when applying to the institution.”
On the Fuller Theological Seminary website, the school states that students and faculty are required to abide by standards of conduct in line with Scripture.
“The ethical standards of Fuller Theological Seminary are guided by an understanding of Scripture and a commitment to its authority regarding all matters of Christian faith and living,” reads Fuller’s Community Standards page. “The seminary community also desires to honor and respect the moral tradition of the churches who entrust students to us for education. These moral standards encompass every area of life, but prevailing confusion about specific areas leads the community to speak clearly about them. Students receiving training in a discipline for which there are professional ethical standards are subject to those as well.”
In the page on sexual standards, Fuller goes on to say that sex is for marriage, which it defines as being between one man and one woman.
“Fuller Theological Seminary believes that sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman, and that sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried,” it reads. “The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.”
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which will be representing Fuller, told Christianity Today that the lawsuit could set a dangerous precedent for future religious institutions.
“The claims here are dangerous for faith-based institutions. If the court was to accept them, then they would be harmful to religious groups of all backgrounds and particularly minority religious groups that have beliefs that the majority and surrounding communities might find unpopular,” said Blomberg. “We think that it’s unlikely that courts would accept these kinds of [plaintiff’s] arguments because they’re weak claims, but they’re dangerous.”
The legal question: Do such institutions violate the civil rights of students and faculty by demanding they live according to such codes of conduct? Marcia McCormick, a professor of law and gender studies at Saint Louis University, argued to NBC News that such institutions can be sued if Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were to be interpreted as including sexual orientation.
“Title VII has an expansive definition of religion — not just of beliefs but also practices,” she explained. “There are a lot of rules in a lot of religions about how people ought to behave when it comes to what it means to be male and female, or to sexual or romantic activity.”
The Supreme Court has taken up consolidated cases this term that could decide whether Title VII indeed covers sexual orientation.