Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary
Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the world’s leading Christian graduate educational institutions. It is a multidenominational, international, and multiethnic seminary committed to training global Christian leaders for the fulfillment of their religious callings in Christian ministries. At the beginning of the admissions process, all students agree to follow the school’s community standards, which are rooted in a Christian understanding of human dignity, community, and morality. These standards reflect a traditional Christian belief that God created marriage to be the permanent covenant between a man and a woman, and that sexual union must be reserved for that relationship. As with all religious organizations, Fuller Theological Seminary has the right to hold voluntary members of its faith community to agreed-upon religious and moral standards. Courts cannot force Fuller to alter or reject those standards. Nevertheless, in 2019, two individuals, Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan, sued Fuller because it dismissed them from the seminary after learning that they knowingly violated the community standards by entering same-sex marriages.
Share this Case
Training ministers of the gospel
As one of the world’s leading Christian seminaries, Fuller Theological Seminary offers a vibrant multidenominational, multiethnic, and international Christian community where Christian students prepare to fulfill their vocations in a variety of ministry settings. For over 70 years, Fuller Theological Seminary has equipped Christian ministers and faith leaders through rigorous academic programs rooted deeply in Christian teaching, to answer God’s call to lead their own communities in the way of Jesus.
When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to adhere to a wide swath of biblically-based Christian ethics by giving written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards as a continuing condition of enrollment. This collective agreement shapes the worldwide ethos of Fuller and includes upholding the belief that God created marriage to be the permanent covenant between only one man and one woman, and that sexual union must be reserved for that relationship. The seminary’s community standards are clear that students are to abstain from sexual conduct outside of this sacred marriage covenant.
The right to define ministry training
Joanna Maxon and Nathan Brittsan applied to Fuller Theological Seminary and agreed to Fuller’s community standards. Both individuals later admitted knowingly violating the standards by entering into same-sex marriages.
As with all students at Fuller, Ms. Maxon and Mr. Brittsan provided written consent to abide by the seminary’s community standards when they applied to the seminary, agreeing that they would follow them as a condition of participating in Fuller’s theological training with the rest of the student community. Their same-sex marriages were a direct and knowing violation of the standards to which they had agreed. Thus, after confirming the standards violations, Fuller regretfully dismissed them from the theology program and refunded their tuition for all classes that were left incomplete at the time of dismissal.
As a religious organization, Fuller Theological Seminary has the First Amendment right, and the religious duty, to uphold specific standards of ethics and morality for the members of its Christian community. This is a right that has been widely accepted and protected by courts for decades. Nevertheless, in November 2019, Ms. Maxon sued Fuller Theological Seminary in federal district court. Mr. Brittsan, who applied to Fuller but never matriculated, joined the lawsuit in January 2020.
Defending a healthy separation of church and state
Churches, seminaries, and other religious groups must be able to decide how to train their own religious leaders according to their own sincere determinations of their religious mission and the teachings of their faith. The government cannot entangle itself in these religious decisions by second-guessing or undermining how religious schools and organizations have decided to train their ministers and leaders. Permitting the government to force itself into the process of setting standards for scholars and ministers of faith is a clear violation of religious autonomy—a threat to the healthy separation of church and state.
The government cannot pressure religious groups into abandoning their beliefs. If Sikhs decide to abandon the turban and kirpan, Orthodox Jews choose to stop keeping Kosher, or Muslims want to reject wearing the hijab, then those must be decisions made freely by members of the faith—not under compulsion from lawsuits and courts. So too with Christian beliefs on the sacrament of marriage. Fuller filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case in February 2020, and a hearing took place on August 4, 2020. On October 7, 2020, the federal district court dismissed the claims against Fuller, protecting the rights of religious educational institutions to uphold community standards. On November 3, 2020, Maxon and Brittsan appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
On December 13, 2021, the Ninth Circuit unanimously protected the right of Fuller Theological Seminary to freely direct its own religious community, a significant win for the rights of religious education institutions of all faiths.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
• Religious Communities—Religious groups must be able to select the members of their ministries according to their religious mission and sincere faith, free from government interference.
• Freedom of groups to train their own leaders—The Supreme Court’s decision in Hosanna-Tabor unanimously protected a church’s right to choose and maintain standards for its own leaders. That principle applies to the training of religious leaders as well. Both church and state are best served when the state isn’t controlling the internal leadership decisions of a religious institution.