A win for religious schools
Court upholds seminary’s right to enforce sexual conduct code
A federal court on Wednesday upheld the right of a historic California seminary to expel two students who violated school policies about marriage and sexuality.
In a 19-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall ruled that Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., was exempt from Title IX, a federal education law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal money.
Marshall said while the prohibition against sex discrimination includes sexual orientation, it doesn’t apply to Fuller. A provision of Title IX exempts schools controlled by religious organizations from following the law if it would contradict their faith.
Fuller’s sexual standards policy, which all students agree to follow, defines marriage as between a man and woman and prohibits extramarital sex while attending the school. Nathan Brittsan and Joanna Maxon, two students who sued the seminary last year, agreed to the policy when they applied. But they each later entered into same-sex marriages, and Fuller asked them to leave. Maxon filed the initial lawsuit in 2019, and Brittsan joined as a plaintiff later.
The students argued continuing the case could uncover that the administrators expelled them based on personal animus rather than violation of Fuller’s religious tenets. But the court rejected such second-guessing. Marshall wrote that it isn’t her job to scrutinize how Fuller interprets its religion, adding, “courts should refrain from trolling through a person’s or institution’s religious beliefs.”
Becket attorney Daniel Blomberg, who represented Fuller, called the ruling “a huge win for seminaries, yeshivas, madrasas, and every other religious institution of higher learning.”
But the court rejected Becket’s argument that Title IX did not include discrimination based on sexual orientation. Marshall pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this summer in Bostock v. Clayton County, where the justices said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which covers employment, barred employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation.
Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito warned at the time that the majority’s holding would have “far-reaching consequences.” The warning proved prescient: Rulings like this one have applied the decision’s rationale to areas besides employment.
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