Anti-discrimination Case Against Fuller Seminary Dismissed by U.S. Court

On Oct. 7, 2020, a U.S. district court sided with Fuller Theological Seminary in an anti-discrimination case filed by two former students, who were expelled for being married to same-sex partners.

This decision dismisses the joined lawsuit of Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan, who were expelled from Fuller for failing to comply with the institute’s sexual standard policy, which constitutes the traditional heterosexual marriage of a man and woman and prohibits romantic relationships between individuals of the same sex.

The original lawsuit was filed in November 2019 by Maxon, who completed more than three years online then abruptly was expelled because the seminary discovered her wife’s name on her tax returns in 2018.

Brittsan, an American Baptist Churches USA minister, got married in the summer of 2017 and requested to change his last name before his summer courses began. He later received a dismissal letter from the administration. Brittsan joined the suit in January 2020 with both clients asking to receive $1 million in compensation for their experiences.

Daniel Bennett, an associate political science professor at John Brown University, summarized Fuller’s argument as expelling the students, not because they are gay, but because it contradicts their sexual standard policy, “which prescribes certain behaviors from students, particularly sex or sexual relationships being confined to a biblical definition of marriage.”

Furthermore, Bennet explained that Fuller argued that they did not discriminate because of the student’s sexual relationships but focused on their failure to abide by a covenant and marriage expectations in a policy all students knowingly agreed to. However, Bennett does note people could see this argument as discriminatory since it treats heterosexual and LGBTQ relationships differently at the institution

The Becket Fund of Religious Liberty, who represented Fuller, stated in a press release that this win “helps protect religious schools nationwide,” especially since this issue is the first to apply to a seminary.

Daniel Blomberg, senior attorney at Becket, said, “This is a huge win for seminaries,” and it cements the idea that religious institutions, “not government officials, should be deciding on how to teach the next generation of religious leaders.”

The court’s decision and reasoning might disturb some individuals because of its unsatisfying conclusion for the plaintiffs; however, this case does represent the tense discussion of religious freedom and gay rights in the country. Considering recent Supreme Court decisions, the conversation of these personal or institutional rights and freedoms will continue in discussion.

Lizette Perez, sophomore communication major, saidd that the case “gives off the impression that the court thinks the case is insignificant.” She emphasized the perception of the court appearing unconcerned with their decision and not offering repercussions against Fuller. “This gives precedent for other schools to take similar actions against the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.

Jesus Madrigal Sandi, senior international business major, stated he is not surprised this decision was legally supported by the court. He emphasized how this ruling is plain discrimination, as they “give rights to some students and not to other ones.” Sandi said, “People need to understand that religion and faith are an individual and personal process, but human rights are collective and for everyone.”

Bennett stated, “I fully believe that students can serve God in many numbers of ways, in any number of contexts. At the same time though, I believe we have to respect the ability of institutions to decide for themselves how they’re going to govern themselves and how they are going to apply what they see as biblical teaching to their code of conduct and expectations for faculty, staff and students.”

When assessing the situation, Logan Wilson, senior biblical and theological studies major, affirmed that Fuller “necessarily [didn’t do anything] wrong, per se,” and it was a safe decision for the court to make as it could set a dangerous precedent for future seminary cases. Wilson reasoned this was because the seminary had a set policy and students agree to it before entering the school. “Now this isn’t to say I would have done necessarily the same thing that Fuller Theological did … it might have gone differently,” Wilson said.

Bennett stated, “So in many ways, this case is a preview of what a lot of Christian colleges are going to face in the next decade or so. Particularly, in the aftermath of Supreme Court decisions affirming rights for LGBT Americans, for same-sex marriage, for non-discrimination protections, etc.”

After cases like Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), Bennett said, “There was still the question of how do we balance these protections for LGBT Americans with other constitutionally protected rights, specifically like rights of religious expression and exercise?”

With these deep political and biblical themes, some Christians find themselves in an awkward position on which side to take in this situation. Some may attempt to discover a balance between the sides, maintain traditional views, subscribe to current cultural norms or propose the question of what Jesus would do.

Perez critiqued, “This does not exemplify the loving and welcoming community Christianity should be cultivating and it only creates a deeper divide between all of us.”

Wilson proposed, “I think, first and foremost, we should be humble and follow before God. We have things in our life that are separating us from God, which is in contradiction to our faith; however, we try and persist with that to serve God with humility.”

Bennett added that Christians should continue to reconcile with this topic, engage in conversations with members or supporters of the LGBT community, and further this discussion at churches. This topic may not be settled for a long time, yet it should not discourage Christians to actively pursue peace for an individual’s faith and rights.