Appeals court: Seminary can enforce sexual standards
Fuller Theological Seminary can hold students to its Biblical beliefs about marriage
A federal appeals court last week upheld a California seminary’s expulsion of two students for violating the school’s sexual standards policy that forbids gay marriage. The judges ruled that a religious exemption to Title IX, written to ensure gender equality in education, allows the seminary to enforce its Biblical standards.
Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan, both students at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, sued the school in 2019 after it asked them to leave because they entered into same-sex marriages. Fuller’s sexual standards policy, which all students agree to follow, defines marriage as between a man and a woman and prohibits extramarital sex while attending the school.
After a U.S. District Court sided with the school in October 2020, the two students appealed. A panel of three Democratic appointees to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s ruling.
The judges rejected two main arguments from the students. They tried to say the religious exemption to Title IX did not apply because a board of trustees rather than an external organization such as a church controlled the school. Judges also rejected the argument that Fuller’s religious tenets are unclear and need more investigation to see whether they truly allow marriage only between one man and one woman. The judges said it would be inappropriate for a court to second-guess the school’s understanding of its own beliefs.
“The religious exemption applies to shield these religiously motivated decisions that would otherwise violate Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination,” the court wrote.
Maxon and Brittsan are two out of 33 current or former Christian college students who also brought a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education in March. They asked the agency to end religious schools’ exemption from federal nondiscrimination laws, a move that would threaten schools with loss of federal funding. At a Nov. 4 hearing, a federal judge in Oregon heard arguments on blocking the colleges’ funding. A ruling is expected early next year.
Missouri’s College of the Ozarks is currently challenging a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rule that would require private religious schools to house students in accordance with their sexual orientation and gender identity. In June, a federal judge expressed support for the Biden administration and ruled against the school because no student had yet complained about its housing policy. College of the Ozarks has appealed.
Luke Goodrich at Becket Law, which represented Fuller, said last week’s ruling rounds out a string of court decisions upholding the right of religious groups to form themselves around shared religious beliefs and practices.
A U.S. District Court ruling in August affirmed an Indianapolis Christian high school’s right to fire a guidance counselor for entering into a same-sex marriage in violation of church teaching. Goodrich also pointed to a federal appeals court’s July ruling upholding the dismissal of a parish music director after he entered into a same-sex marriage.
While the latter cases focus on the so-called ministerial exception rather than the statutory religious exemption at issue in the Fuller dispute, all share a common theme—the protection of religious communities,” he said. “It was a big, big year for religious freedom in that sense.”
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