Fuller Seminary’s Claims of Religious Exemption from Federal Codes May Not Be Enough in Same-Sex Discrimination Case

Posted January 14th, 2020.

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A lawyer for a firm that recently won millions in a Title IX discrimination case told Pasadena Now that claims by Pasadena-based Fuller Theological Seminary that they are exempt from Title IX of the U.S. Education Code, which prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions that accept federal funds, may not be enough to help the seminary in a lawsuit filed by two students expelled from the college because they are in separate same-sex marriages.

“Whether an institution is exempt from complying with Title IX, the Unruh Act, and other laws prohibiting discrimination depends on a wide variety of factors,” said Danielle Fuschetti, senior litigation counsel at Sanford, Heisler, Sharp.

In 2016, the firm won $3.3 million for Beth Burns, the winningest women’s basketball coach in San Diego State University history after Burns expressed her concerns about gender equity.

Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan were kicked out of Fuller Seminary in 2019 and 2017, respectively, after college officials discovered they were in same-sex marriages. They claim their civil rights were violated and they suffered emotional distress and are asking for $2 million.

Maxon and Brittsan received federal assistance to attend the school, which their lawyer claims subjects the school to Title IX guidelines.

Congress passed Title IX as a followup to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to end discrimination in various fields based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in the areas of employment and public accommodation.

The Civil Rights Act did not prohibit sex discrimination against persons employed at educational institutions. A parallel law, Title VI, was enacted in 1964 to prohibit discrimination in federally funded private and public entities. It covered race, color and national origin but excluded sex.

Due to a popular misconception, many think of the law as a sports equity act that gives girls the right to try and compete on boys’ teams.

In the early 1970s, Congress lobbied to add sex as a protected class category which led to Title IX.

According to the OCR, religious institutions are entitled to exemptions from Title IX nondiscrimination rules if the school is connected to a church.

In April, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear three cases centered on the question of whether Title IX applies to sexual orientation and gender identity, neither of which are explicitly mentioned in the law.

Last week a lawyer representing the school said the case involving Fuller is “about whether religious groups get to decide how to train their religious leaders, free from government entanglement.”

“That Fuller is a Christian seminary doesn’t end the inquiry,” Fuschetti said. “I understand from papers filed in this case that the plaintiffs allege Fuller receives government funding, is not affiliated with a particular denomination or church, is multidenominational, and publicly acknowledges that it is subject to Title IX. These allegations present serious obstacles for the school in claiming a religious exemption from Title IX.”

According to Fuschetti, many Christian denominations take no issue with same-sex couples.

“It is not clear Fuller could qualify for a Title IX religious exemption on this subject. Even if it could, according to the allegations, Fuller chose not to seek an exemption from Title IX through the ordinary process. This also could weigh against a religious exemption.”

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