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Federal Appeals Court Applies Title IX Religious Exemption To Uphold Dismissal Of Lawsuit Brought By Former Students Of Seminary School Who Were Expelled For Being In Same Sex Marriages
Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan were dismissed from Fuller Theological Seminary (Seminary) for violating the Seminary’s Sexual Standards policy, which states that “sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman” and outlines the expectation that all members of the school community “abstain from what it holds to be unbiblical sexual practices.”
After their dismissal from the Seminary, Maxon and Brittsan filed a sex discrimination claim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) against the Seminary. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex by educational institutions receiving certain federal financial assistance. Title IX contains an exemption for educational institutions controlled by religious organizations if the application of Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.
The district court found that the Seminary fell within Title IX’s religious exemption and dismissed the claim. Maxon and Brittsan appealed the dismissal, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted review.
On appeal, Maxon and Brittsan contended that the Title IX religious exemption does not apply to the Seminary because it is controlled by its own internal board of trustees rather than by a distinct, external religious organization. The Ninth Circuit found that Title IX does not define the term “religious organization” or address whether the religious organization must be a separate legal entity from the educational institution in order to qualify for the religious exemption. However, both the ordinary meaning of the term “organization” and guidance from the Department of Education indicate that Title IX’s religious exemption applies to educational institutions that are wholly controlled by its own religiously affiliated boards of trustees.
Maxon and Brittsan also contended that the Seminary’s alleged discriminatory actions toward them do not fall within the religious exemption because it is not clear whether there is a legitimate conflict between the school’s religious tenets and Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination. The Court noted that it could not second-guess Fuller’s interpretation of its own religious tenets in order to address Maxon and Brittsan’s contention.
Maxon and Brittsan further asserted that the Seminary was required to provide written notice to the Department of Education to assert the religious exemption and pointed to a regulation stating that “[a]n educational institution which wishes to claim the [religious] … shall do so by submitting in writing to the Assistant Secretary a statement by the highest-ranking official of the institution, identifying the provisions of this part which conflict with a specific tenet of the religious organization.” However, the court explained that the regulation they referenced was intended to offer educational institutions an opportunity to request an assurance letter that they fall within the religious exemption of Title IX, and not to require educational institutions to provide any sort of written notice before they can assert the religious exemption. Instead, the religious exemption is mandatory and automatic.
Therefore, the court upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss Maxon and Brittsan’s claim.
Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary (9th Cir., Dec. 13, 2021, No. 20-56156) 2021 WL 5882035 (unpublished).
Title IX applies to most private colleges and universities, and to certain private and independent K-12 schools that accept certain federal financial assistance.