A federal court in California this week ruled in favor of a Christian seminary that expelled two seminarians who had entered into gay marriages in violation of the school’s opposition to same-sex unions.
Attorneys representing Fuller Theological Seminary said the ruling marks the first time a federal court has recognized a religious liberty exemption for faith-based educational institutions.
“It would create a huge establishment clause [issue] if you have government agents going in and telling a seminary how to do their job and practice their faith,” Daniel Blomberg, a senior attorney for the religious liberty law firm Becket who represented the seminary, told The Washington Times.
In a 19-page order dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall cited a religious exemption to federal education rules against sex-based discrimination.
While describing the anti-LGBTQ discrimination as “undisputed,” Judge Marshall wrote that federal law nevertheless protects organization’s conduct motivated by sincerely held, faith-based beliefs within the context of a religious educational institution.
“The Court is not permitted to scrutinize the interpretation [the seminary] gives to its religious beliefs,” the judge wrote in Wednesday’s order.
Attorney Paul Southwick, who represented the expelled students, said Thursday he would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
He noted that the ruling came after the Trump administration’s Education Department had issued a new guidance that absolved faith-based schools from having to proactively seek an exemption.
“If a Biden administration came in, they would be able to take the rules back to where they were,” Mr. Southwick told The Times. “It’s unfortunate that the Trump administration has expanded their understanding of the exemption.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced in January that the administration was easing rules for religious schools seeking an exemption to Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education. Mrs. DeVos said the move would protect the “religious liberty of faith-based institutions.”
In her ruling, Judge Marshall said that the seminary fits the definition of a “religious organization” and therefore is shielded from any discrimination claim under Title IX.
Joanna Maxon sued Fuller Theological in November after administrators at the multidenominational seminary became aware of her marriage to a woman and said the relationship violated the school’s “community standards.” In the court filings, Ms. Maxon’s attorneys framed her fight as a civil rights case.
“Mrs. Maxon is a Christian woman who took her studies seriously,” the lawsuit said. “She deserved more than a cold letter dismissing her ‘effective immediately.’”
The seminary maintains that it does not discriminate according to Title IX and requires students to agree to a set of “community standards,” including complying with the overriding belief that “sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant between one man and one woman.”
The school, founded in Pasadena in 1947 by radio evangelist Charles E. Fuller, also opposes “premarital, extramarital and homosexual” sex.
“It’s a tough issue that’s divided faith groups all around the world,” Mr. Blomberg said. “What we don’t want is Uncle Sam trying to impose a one-size-fits-all solution.”