Federal judge OKs discrimination against LGBTQ students


California's Fuller Theological Seminary has received federal funds in the past.

A federal judge ruled just last week that a California seminary that expelled students for being married to someone of the same sex is protected by religious exemptions.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said on Oct. 7 that, in the case of Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary, the evangelical Christian Fuller Theological Seminary, which receives federal funds, is protected by exemptions in Title IX.

"The Court is not permitted to scrutinize the interpretation [the seminary] gives to its religious beliefs," Marshall wrote.

The religious right has since celebrated the decision.

Daniel Blomberg, an attorney with the law firm that represented the Fuller Theological Seminary, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told The Washington Times at the time of the decision, "It would create a huge establishment clause [issue] if you have government agents going in and telling a seminary how to do their job and practice their faith."

The Becket Fund weighed in on the decision as well, calling it a "landmark decision with nationwide impact."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the law firm previously as "the intellectual leader of right-wing religious liberty campaigns," noting that, among other things, it has "falsely argue[d] that Roman Catholics will be forced to perform same-sex marriages with the passage of marriage equality." Its board members have called for a "national rebellion" against marriage equality and described same-sex unions as a "radical social experiment."

Under the Obama Administration, federally funded education institutions had to request a religious exemption from the federal government to discriminate against individuals or groups of people. Under the Trump administration, they are not required to do the same.

The Education Department's website states that although Title IX regulations provide a process for these institutions to reach out to the department's Office for Civil Rights, an institution's exemption status "is not dependent upon" it doing so.

Paul Southwick, the lawyer representing the two plaintiffs who brought the case, Nathan Brittsan and Joanna Maxon, told the Washington Times that the Trump administration guidance without a doubt affected Marshall's ruling.

"It's unfortunate that the Trump administration has expanded their understanding of the exemption," he said.

Southwick said he is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the faith and progressive policy initiative at the Center for American Progress, said last week's decision shows a willingness to broaden religious exemptions. The seminary, he claimed, should be recognized as a secular board because it isn't tied to a religious organization. He said the court's justification, which is that it is "a religious board of directors" creates an overly broad definition of a religious organization.

"... I think that is the danger, specifically because what religious right and conservative legal establishment want is such a broad definition ... you're really opening up a can of worms," he added.

A 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 60% of Americans across religious denominations oppose allowing discrimination by business owners against LGB customers. Varying majorities of Christians said they were against this discrimination. White evangelical Protestants and Mormons were the outliers, with 53% in support of giving business owners the right to deny service to LGB people.

The Trump administration guidance is consistent with its track record.

The Department of Education under Trump rolled back protections for the LGBTQ community in its earliest days. It reversed Obama-era protections for transgender students in schools, and, in 2018, the department clarified its position further and said transgender students complaints about a lack of access to the restrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender was not a form of discrimination under Title IX, stating that it wouldn't take action on those complaints.

The department also took a piecemeal approach in how it responded to a June Supreme Court ruling on anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Its Office for Civil Rights, for instance, agreed to investigate a complaint on anti-LGB discrimination following the landmark decision but not anti-transgender discrimination.

This stance on LGBTQ equality and transgender people's rights in particular is echoed in the department's decision to give anti-LGBTQ activists prominent roles.

This year, the Office for Civil Rights said it would be making changes to its Diversity and Inclusion and Employee Engagement Advisory councils; As HuffPost reported last week, Sarah Perry, who has a record of anti-transgender activism, has since become a co-chair on the council.

Perry is new to the agency and worked at the Family Research Council, which is designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The former head of the Office for Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus, also said he couldn't name a single issue on which he disagrees with Donald Trump. During his time at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, under the Bush administration, Marcus refused to expand the scope of the agency to investigate LGBTQ rights violations, the Nation reported.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.