It’s not every day when we can report a court decision in favor of religious freedom coming from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. A three-judge panel has unanimously ruled that Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, was within its rights to expel two students who were in same-sex marriages in violation of Fuller’s sexual conduct policy.

Nathan Brittsan and Joanna Maxon were enrolled in graduate programs at Fuller when the seminary learned they were both in same-sex unions. Both were dismissed for violating the school’s policy that states that “sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman.”

The pair filed a lawsuit against the seminary, alleging that Fuller’s actions violated Title IX, a federal nondiscrimination law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The 1972 law was passed primarily in order to create a level playing field for women in secondary educational institutions receiving federal funds. It contains a religious exemption that the 9th Circuit relied on to conclude that Fuller’s biblical beliefs about men, women and marriage were protected under the law, necessitating a dismissal of the lawsuit.

“To the extent that Plaintiffs ask us to second-guess Fuller’s interpretation of its own religious tenets, we cannot grant Plaintiffs any relief,” the unsigned opinion for the court reads.

“To the extent that Plaintiffs were dismissed because their marriages were with spouses of the same sex, rather than the opposite sex, Plaintiffs’ claim fails because the religious exemption applies to shield these religiously motivated decisions that would otherwise violate Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination.”

The 9th Circuit panel of judges, comprised of Richard Paez, Paul Watford and Michelle Friedland, all appointees of Democrat presidents, were asked to hear the students’ appeal after their lawsuit was dismissed by a lower federal court in October 2020.

Fuller is represented by Daniel Blomberg, Senior Counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In an email to The Daily Citizen, Blomberg commented on the 9th Circuit’s ruling:

“The Supreme Court has a long history of protecting the right of religious groups to make their own decisions in how to educate the next leaders of the faith,” he said. “The Ninth Circuit recognized both this commonsense right and the Seminary’s vital role in forming Christian leaders – a role that should be taught in accordance with the mission of the Seminary’s beliefs and not coerced by the government.

“The court’s decision is one that underscores the American pluralistic value of religious freedom for all faiths, which allows people and communities of every background to pursue their religious missions without compromising their beliefs.” 

LGBT activists are currently suing the U.S. Department of Education in an attempt to end the religious exemption in Title IX, arguing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County redefined “sex” in federal law to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Several Christian colleges have asked to join that lawsuit to defend the exemption.

Although the 9th Circuit cited Bostock in its Fuller decision, it was for the purpose of noting that the redefinition of sex in that case only applied to employment cases under Title VII, a different federal law. For now, the good news is that the religious exemption under Title IX continues to protect the beliefs and mission of Christian colleges.

The case is Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary.



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