Expelled students sue Fuller Theological Seminary for sex discrimination
An evangelical seminary in California is accused in a lawsuit of violating a federal anti-discrimination law for kicking out two seminarians who each married someone of the same sex.
Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, expelled graduate students Nathan Brittsan and Joanna Maxon after administrators learned of their same-sex marriages, the lawsuit says.
The multi-denominational seminary holds same-sex marriage to be one of many “unbiblical sexual practices,” along with pre- and extramarital affairs.
Mr. Brittsan on Tuesday joined the federal lawsuit, which Ms. Maxon filed in the U.S. District Court for Central California in November.
The lawsuit says their expulsion violated federal Title IX rules banning discrimination on the basis of sex, as laid out in the Education Amendments of 1972. The suit is believed to be the first of its kind against a Christian seminary and seeks more than $1 million in damages.
“Defendants discriminated against Joanna and Nathan based on their sexual orientation because they expelled Joanna and Nathan for entering into civil same-sex marriages,” says the lawsuit, which notes the plaintiffs would not have been expelled if they had married partners of different sexes.
Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is defending Fuller and argues that an institution training the next generation of Christian leaders should be able to decide its doctrine.
“This case is about whether religious groups get to decide how to train their religious leaders, free from government entanglement,” Mr. Blomberg said in a written statement. “In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the First Amendment commits these kinds of issues to religious groups to decide, not the courts. A healthy separation of church and state demands nothing less.”
At issue is whether the definition of “sex” in the 1972 law includes “gender” or “sexual orientation.”
In 2014, the Obama Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights announced that its attorneys had concluded discrimination against “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” to be one-in-the-same with discrimination on the basis of “sex.”
Subsequently, about 74 schools, mostly Christian facilities, sought exemptions from the ban on the basis of religious liberty. Fuller, which took in nearly $80 million in federal funds over the last three years, did not apply for an exemption.
The seminary maintains its right to hold students to core values, writing into its anti-discrimination policy that it “does lawfully discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct that violates its biblically based Community Standard Statement on Sexual Standards.”
An Education Department spokeswoman said Thursday the department’s civil rights office currently does not have an open case involving Fuller. While the Trump administration has sought greater leeway for religious liberty, Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the Education Department will protect students bullied because of LGBTQ identity.
The two plaintiffs took different routes to litigation. Ms. Maxon, who had divorced her husband after starting graduate school, married a woman in 2016. Ms. Maxon was just a few credits shy of earning a master’s degree in theology and ministry in 2018, when administrators told her that her marriage violated the seminary’s conduct policy.
“Now, after suddenly being expelled because of her same-sex marriage, Joanna has to repay those loans and to reassess her professional goals,” the lawsuit states.
Mr. Brittsan is a member of an American Baptist Churches USA congregation that accepts gay people and performs same-sex marriages. He said he was accepted into the seminary’s graduate program but administrators expelled him before he could begin taking classes.
“Nathan was lied to, given the run-around and rejected by some at Fuller, while also being quietly supported by others, who maintained silence to keep their jobs,” the lawsuit alleges.
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