Joanna Maxon began working on a master’s degree in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2015. Fuller’s main campus is in Pasadena, California, but the school offers a number of online programs and has a regional facility in Texas, where Maxon lives.
Now, Maxon is suing Fuller, which expelled her because she married a woman. She’s charging the school with violating Title IX and discriminating on the basis of sex. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.
Her suit explains that when she applied to the seminary, Maxon, who is 53 years old and has two children, was married to a man. She and her husband separated and divorced before she started classes. While studying theology, Maxon began a relationship with another woman, Tonya Minton. The two women married in 2016, a year after the Supreme Court redefined marriage for every state in the U.S.
Maxon was expelled by the seminary two years later, when the school saw from her federal income tax return that she was in a same-sex marriage.
In addition to violating Title IX, the lawsuit also alleges that the seminary breached the Unruh Civil Rights Act, a California law passed in 1959. That law, as it reads today, includes a prohibition of discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
Her lawsuit also charges the school with breach of contract and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” arguing that “Fuller punished Mrs. Maxon for exercising her constitutional right to marry the woman she loves.”
Maxon is looking for compensation to cover her student loans and lawyer fees, and she’s asking for additional damages of approximately $575,000 for the alleged breach of contract and emotional distress.
Fuller describes itself as an “evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his church.” The school was started in 1947 by evangelist Charles E. Fuller and theologian Harold J. Ockenga. The seminary has over 3,500 students who come from 90 countries and 110 denominations.
The school’s website clearly states its views about marriage and sexuality in its “Community Standard Statement on Sexual Standards”: “Fuller Theological Seminary believes that sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman, and that sexual abstinence is required for the unmarried. The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. Consequently, the seminary expects all members of its community–students, faculty, administrators/managers, staff, and trustees–to abstain from what it holds to be unbiblical sexual practices.”
At the same time, Fuller’s “Policy Against Unlawful Discrimination” says the school does not discriminate on the basis of “gender, gender identity, gender expression,” or sexual orientation. However, the policy continues, “The seminary does lawfully discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct that violates its biblically based “Community Standard Statement on Sexual Standards.”
According to her lawsuit, Maxson talked about her relationship with other students and professors at Fuller when she and Minton started dating and they “continued to be supportive and affirming of her and her family.” The suit also says that Fuller’s policy does not explicitly prohibit students from entering into same-sex civil same-sex marriages and that it allows for same-sex relationships that are non-sexual.
The case has implications for Christian colleges and universities across the nation. Maxson’s lawyer, Paul Southwick, told the Los Angeles Times that “he hopes the suit will help change discriminatory policies so more LGBTQ individuals can pursue an education at Christian schools.”