In a landmark decision with nationwide impact, a federal judge ruled that a seminary has the right to train students for ministry according to its sincere religious beliefs, free from government entanglement. This week, in Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary, the Central District of California blocked claims by two individuals who sued Fuller Theological Seminary, arguing that federal law made it illegal for the seminary to dismiss them from its School of Theology for violating its religious standards. Becket is defending the seminary, arguing that the government cannot control how religious schools train future ministers and other religious leaders.
When students apply to Fuller Theological Seminary, they agree to faithfully follow the seminary’s religious standards throughout their training for ministry and other religious service. Like all their peers, the plaintiffs made that agreement. But after the seminary learned that the plaintiffs had violated the standards, the seminary regretfully dismissed them and refunded their costs for the classes they were unable to complete. The plaintiffs then sued.
The judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, explaining: “It is well established … that courts should refrain from trolling through a person’s or institution’s religious beliefs.”
“This is a huge win for seminaries, yeshivas, madrasas, and every other religious institution of higher education,” said Daniel Blomberg, senior attorney at Becket. “That’s because houses of worship, and not government officials, should be deciding how to teach the next generation of religious leaders.”
Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the world’s leading Christian educational institutions. It is a multidenominational, international, and multiethnic seminary committed to training global Christian leaders for the fulfillment of their religious callings. Each student who graduates from the seminary is prepared to be a leader in the faith and to practice and teach the gospel to their diverse communities.
As a religious educational institution, the seminary has the First Amendment right to uphold specific standards of faith and morality for the members of its Christian community. Federal civil rights law has affirmatively protected this fundamental constitutional right for decades. Until now, no court had ever been required to apply those laws to protect a seminary. Fuller’s win helps protect religious schools nationwide.
“Personal persuasion, not government coercion, is how the First Amendment allows citizens to engage with religious beliefs they don’t like,” said Blomberg. “This lawsuit threatened to impose a government straitjacket on all Americans, and it’s good for everyone that the court said no.”