Last November, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary — the nation’s largest interdenominational seminary — sued the school for discrimination after she was expelled for marrying another woman. Now, another former student is joining the lawsuit.
In the amended complaint filed Tuesday, Nathan Brittsan, an American Baptist Churches USA pastor, joined Joanna Maxon in requesting the school award them more than $1 million each to compensate for damages, Christianity Today reported.
What are the details?
According to the report, Brittsan received his letter of dismissal two days before beginning his first classes when school administrators discovered his same-sex marriage following his request to change his last name.
Maxon filed the original lawsuit in November after she was expelled only weeks aways from completing her master of arts degree in theology. Having taken mostly online classes, Maxon’s marital status had flown under the radar for years until the school noticed her wife listed on her 2016 tax returns, which it accessed to assess financial aid.
“I was approaching the end and looking forward to graduation and all that stuff,” Maxon, 53, told NBC News. “To have that taken away unexpectedly — I was a really good student — I was devastated by it.”
However, it is difficult to imagine how the two students could have been caught by surprise, as at least Maxon alleges she was, since the school requires that students agree to comply with the statement of faith and community standards during the application process.
Fuller, like many Christian schools in the U.S., upholds the traditional definition of marriage as a “covenant union between one man and one woman” in its Sexual Standards policy, and believes “homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.”
What are the attorneys arguing?
Paul Southwick, the attorney representing Maxon and Brittsan, is arguing that Fuller is required to comply with Title IX, which bars federally funded educational programs from discriminating based on sex. However, religiously affiliated schools are often granted exceptions from Title IX regulations in order to accommodate for religious freedom.
“It’s a very important case at this time in our nation’s history,” Southwick said, according to Christianity Today. “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.”
Representing Fuller is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which specializes religious liberty defense cases such as the Supreme Court cases Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014 and Holt v. Hobbs in 2015.
Becket Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg warned that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in this case could have widespread negative effects on religious liberty for faith-based institutions.
“The claims here are dangerous for faith-based institutions,” Blomberg said. “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.”
According to Christianity Today, Fuller’s attorneys have two weeks to respond to the lawsuit and are expected to ask that the court dismiss the case.
Fuller is based in Pasadena, California, but offers classes online and at a Texas satellite campus.