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Court Rejects Challenge to Seminary’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban

January 18, 2022

A federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by two former students at Fuller Theological Seminary who were expelled for being in same-sex marriages. The California seminary’s policies state that “sexual union must be reserved for marriage, which is the covenant union between one man and one woman.”

The Ninth Circuit of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s decision that Fuller was shielded from liability under the religious exemption of Title IX, the federal statute prohibiting sex-based discrimination in higher education. Title IX includes an exemption for institutions controlled by religious organizations to the extent that application of the law “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

In its Dec. 13 opinion, the appeals court rejected the students’ argument “that the exemption does not apply to Fuller because the school is controlled by its own board of trustees rather than by a distinct, external organization.” The court concluded, instead, that “Title IX’s religious exemption encompasses educational institutions, including divinity schools like Fuller, that are controlled by their own religiously affiliated boards of trustees.”

The court also found that Fuller was not required to provide written notice to the Department of Education to claim the religious exemption from Title IX. “Given that DOE has never required educational institutions to request the religious exemption in writing and that such a requirement would conflict with the plain language of the statute, Fuller is not barred from claiming the exception because it failed to submit such a request,” the appeals court concluded.

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