The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with Fuller Theological Seminary in a two-year battle over the school’s sexual standards policy, which states that “sexual union must be reserved for marriage … the covenant union between one man and one woman.”
In 2019, Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan—who were both graduate students at Fuller—were dismissed from the Pasadena, California, seminary after it was revealed the two were in same-sex marriages.
All Fuller students are required to sign the school’s sexual standards policy upon enrollment and are expected to “to abstain from what [the seminary] holds to be unbiblical sexual practices,” including premarital, extramarital and homosexual sexual conduct.
Nevertheless, Maxon and Brittsan sued Fuller, claiming that the school violates Title IX rules, which say that “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.”
Maxon and Brittsan argued that Title IX’s religious exemption does not apply to Fuller because the seminary is controlled by its own board of trustees rather than by an external organization, such as a church.
“The Plaintiffs’ argument ran counter to over 40 years of federal enforcement of Title IX, which conscientiously avoided government entanglement in internal religious matters,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior counsel at Becket Law. “If one of the largest Protestant seminaries in the world wasn’t protected from suit under Title IX, very few other religious schools would be either. Uncle Sam would start running theology departments nationwide.”
The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California agreed, ruling in favor of Fuller in October 2020 and stating that Fuller, as a seminary, plainly qualifies as a “department of divinity” as defined by the Department of Education. Therefore, the Title IX religious exemption applies, the judge concluded.
But Maxon and Brittsan appealed.
The Dec. 13 decision by the 9th Circuit upheld the district court’s judgment, making it clear that “Fuller’s actions fell squarely within Title IX’s religious exemption.”
Blomberg celebrated the ruling, calling it “a big win” for Fuller and all other religious institutions.
“For over 70 years, Fuller Theological Seminary has prepared Christian men and women from diverse backgrounds for worldwide ministry,” he said. “As part of its religious training, the seminary has established religious community standards to guide its teachers, staff and students. … This win continues a string of rulings against governmental efforts to remove religion from higher education institutions.”
Photo: Courtesy of Becket Law