Another former Fuller Theological Seminary student who says he was expelled because of his same-sex marriage has joined a lawsuit alleging the nation’s largest interdenominational seminary violated anti-discrimination laws.
In the amended complaint filed Tuesday morning, Nathan Brittsan, an American Baptist Churches USA minister, and Joanna Maxon, a former Fuller student who sued the school in November over a similar experience, ask for more than $1 million each in compensation.
The suit is believed to be the first of its kind, and its outcome could have wider implications for Christian colleges and universities who receive government funding. Title IX bars federally funded educational programs from discrimination based on sex, though dozens of Christian schools have received exemptions.
“It’s a very important case at this time in our nation’s history,” said Paul Southwick, the attorney representing Maxon and Brittsan. “This case could set an important legal precedent that if an educational institution receives federal funding, even if it’s religiously affiliated, even if it’s a seminary, that it’s required to comply with Title IX prohibitions on sex discrimination as applied to LGBT individuals.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty will represent Fuller. Becket specializes in the defense of religious liberty and has taken on numerous high profile cases, including the Supreme Court cases Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014 and Holt v. Hobbs in 2015.
Becket’s lawyers have not yet reviewed the amended complaint and are consulting with Fuller about the next steps in the legal defense.
“The claims here are dangerous for faith-based institutions,” said Becket Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg. “If the court was to accept them, then they would be harmful to religious groups of all backgrounds and particularly minority religious groups that have beliefs that the majority and the surrounding communities might find unpopular … We think that’s unlikely that courts would accept these kinds of arguments because they’re weak claims. But they’re dangerous.”
Maxon’s original suit was filed in November. She was expelled in 2018 after administrators noticed her wife was listed on her tax returns. Maxon, who took mostly online classes, had completed more than three years of course work and was in her final semester.
Brittsan received his letter of dismissal in 2017, two days before beginning his first quarter. In the letter, a dean said administrators knew about Brittsan’s same-sex marriage because of his request to change his last name. Brittsan had not told the school why he wanted to change his last name in the request, but administrators knew he was part of an LGBT-affirming church.
Brittsan had also disclosed his recent marriage to another dean and a professor who spoke with him before the administration sent the letter. The suit alleges, “Nathan was not informed that this discussion was actually part of an initial inquiry or investigation by Fuller into Nathan’s perceived Community Standards violation.”
Brittsan attempted to appeal his expulsion twice, according to the lawsuit, and asked for his disciplinary procedure records at least five times.
The suit alleges the seminary disputed his enrollment at the time of the appeals, as well as whether it was required to release the disciplinary records. Brittsan wanted to appeal his explusion to the Board of Trustees, but wasn’t allowed to do that without documentation of his disiplinary records, according to his lawyer. Brittsan filed a complaint with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to obtain disciplinary records in January 2018, but still has not seen them.
The case will mainly hinge on Fuller’s Sexual Standards policy, which states the seminary holds marriage to be a “covenant union between one man and one woman” and believes “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.”
These policies are nothing new. Evangelical schools have traditionally asked students to adhere to certain standards in accordance with their faith, with many barring sex outside of marriage. After same-sex marriage was legalized, some schools changed policies to extend benefits to same-sex couples, revise their codes for students, or clarify their commitment to traditional marriage. Fuller maintained its comment to a “one man, one woman” view of marriage. There is a growing momentum around LGBT anti-discrimination measures in court and mounting legal effots to expand Title IX protections to gender identity and sexuality. According to Southwick, the combined lawsuit is the first against a Christian institution of higher education institution for expelling a married LGBT student since the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
The suit claims Fuller violated Title IX as well as other legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination. Fuller’s policy states, “The seminary does lawfully discriminate on the basis of sexual conduct that violates its biblically based Community Standard Statement on Sexual Standards.”
Fuller’s attorneys have two weeks to respond to the complaint. They are expected to ask the court to dismiss the case.
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