Since 1947, Fuller Theological Seminary has prepared Christian students to fulfill their vocations in a variety of ministry settings. When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree writing to abide by the seminary’s community standards as a condition of continued enrollment. One of the agreed upon community standards is the belief that God created marriage to be the permanent covenant between only one man and one woman. The standards also make clear that students are to abstain from sexual conduct outside of this sacred marriage covenant.
Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan applied to Fuller Theological Seminary and agreed to Fuller’s community standards. Both later admitted to knowingly violating the standards by entering into same-sex marriages. After confirming the standards violations, Fuller regretfully dismissed Ms. Maxon and Mr. Brittsan from the theology program and refunded their tuition for all classes that were left incomplete at the time of dismissal.
As a religious organization, Fuller Theological Seminary has the First Amendment right to uphold specific standards of ethics and morality for the members of its Christian community. This is a right that has been widely accepted and protected by courts for decades. Nevertheless, in November 2019, Ms. Maxon sued Fuller Theological Seminary in federal district court. Mr. Brittsan, who applied to Fuller but never matriculated, joined the lawsuit in January 2020. The seminary filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case in February 2020, and a hearing took place on August 4, 2020.
On October 7, 2020, the federal district court dismissed the claims against Fuller, protecting the rights of religious educational institutions to uphold community standards. On November 3, 2020, Plaintiffs appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. CLS, along with 14 other religious organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the seminary’s right to uphold its community standards.
On December 13, 2021, in an unpublished opinion, a unanimous Ninth Circuit found in favor of Fuller Theological Seminary, thereby protecting the right of the seminary to freely direct its own religious community. Notably, the Ninth Circuit:
- held that Fuller did not need to seek assurance from the Department to claim the religious exemption. (“Reading the regulation to require an advance statement, however, conflicts with the clear language of 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)(3), DOE’s longstanding practice, and the current text of section 106.12(b). . . . The language of Title IX does not condition an institution’s ability to claim the religious exemption on filing written notice or on any other process—the exemption is mandatory and automatic.”);
- rejected Maxon’s argument that the Title IX religious exemption does not apply to institutions like Fuller that lack an external control organization and is instead governed by a religious board of directors. (“For over 30 years, DOE has maintained that the statute does not contain ‘an independent requirement that the controlling religious organization be a separate legal entity than the educational institution.’”);
- agreed that it would be inappropriate to second-guess the religious beliefs of Fuller to determine whether there was a conflict between Title IX and Fuller’s religious beliefs; and
- held that the district court did not err in dismissing Plaintiffs’ complaint because they “could allege no additional facts to save their challenge to Fuller’s differential treatment of same-sex marriages as compared to opposite-sex marriages, since Fuller’s actions fell squarely within Title IX’s religious exemption.”