Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California has now been slapped with a lawsuit for allegedly expelling a 53-year-old graduate student upon learning of her same-sex marriage.
According to Bloomberg Law, Joanna Maxon began attending Fuller in 2015 by taking online courses while attending classes at the school’s regional campus in Texas. She had hoped to work toward a master of arts in theology degree in order “to become a better supervisor.” After three years into the program, however, the school expelled her allegedly for being in a same-sex relationship, forcing her to repay her federal loans prematurely and “reassess her professional goals.”
She has now filed suit against the school under Title IX, claiming that “Fuller accepts federal funding and doesn’t have a religious exemption under Title IX.”
Maxon’s legal counsel, Paul Carlos Southwick of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, claims that both professors and students at Fuller Theological Seminary accepted her same-sex marriage and that she was blindsided by the expulsion.
“She was authentic with the university and was accepted by students and professors after she married her wife,” Southwick told Bloomberg Law. “A publicly funded institution should not be allowed to suddenly expel a student because of her same-sex marriage, especially one who has invested over three years of time and money completing her degree.”
Fuller Theological Seminary, however, maintains that, as a Christian institution, the school informs all students and faculty of explicit guidelines and standards of conduct for them to abide by when applying to attend.
“As a historically multi-denominational seminary and a convening place for civil dialogue — with a commitment to academic freedom — we strive to serve the global Christian church in its various perspectives,” the school said in a statement. “We remain committed to these relationships in all their complexities while maintaining community standards and a statement of faith that apply to various areas of beliefs and behavior. Students are informed of and explicitly agree to abide by these standards when applying to the institution.”
On the Fuller Theological Seminary website, the school states that students and faculty are required to abide by standards of conduct in line with Scripture.
“The ethical standards of Fuller Theological Seminary are guided by an understanding of Scripture and a commitment to its authority regarding all matters of Christian faith and living,” reads Fuller’s Community Standards page. “The seminary community also desires to honor and respect the moral tradition of the churches who entrust students to us for education. These moral standards encompass every area of life, but prevailing confusion about specific areas leads the community to speak clearly about them. Students receiving training in a discipline for which there are professional ethical standards are subject to those as well.”
In the page on sexual standards, Fuller goes on to say that sex is for marriage, which it defines as being between one man and one woman.
“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,” it reads. “The seminary believes premarital, extramarital, and homosexual forms of explicit sexual conduct to be inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture.”
While it’s not exactly clear how extensive Fuller’s standards for students were during Maxon’s tenure, her expulsion from the school allegedly due to her being in a same-sex marriage represents just one of many cases to erupt into the cultural conversation regarding the rights of religious institutions to enforce codes of conduct on students and faculty pertaining to the practice of biblical sexual morality. Most recently, a woman sued the Archdiocese of Indianapolis after being fired from the Catholic school where she worked after the school learned of her same-sex marriage.
“Catholic schools exist to communicate the Catholic faith to the next generation,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “To accomplish their mission, Catholic schools ask all teachers, administrators and guidance counselors to uphold the Catholic faith by word and action, both inside and outside the classroom.”
The legal question: Do such institutions violate the civil rights of students and faculty by demanding they live according to such codes of conduct? Marcia McCormick, a professor of law and gender studies at Saint Louis University, argued to NBC News that such institutions can be sued if Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were to be interpreted as including sexual orientation.
“Title VII has an expansive definition of religion — not just of beliefs but also practices,” she explained. “There are a lot of rules in a lot of religions about how people ought to behave when it comes to what it means to be male and female, or to sexual or romantic activity.”
The Supreme Court has taken up consolidated cases this term that could decide whether Title VII indeed covers sexual orientation.