Fuller Theological Seminary is facing a Title IX lawsuit from a former student, whom Fuller had expelled for entering into a civil same-sex marriage. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding. As I have noted before at First Things, this law does allow exemptions for religious institutions, but such exemptions are becoming increasingly tenuous. And despite the Trump administration rescinding the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter by which the Obama administration sought to expand Title IX to cover transgender people, the elasticity of the legislation in our current climate renders it the left’s equivalent of Batman’s all-purpose utility belt.
Such a case was bound to happen at some point. Civic piety and Christian piety in the realm of sexual mores and identity are increasingly antithetical to each other. Not since perhaps the middle of the third century have those things that constitute good citizenship of the earthly and the heavenly cities been so difficult to reconcile. It is ironic, perhaps, that Fuller could be the seminary test case for this. Anyone familiar with the history of the institution from the work of George Marsden or Rudolph Nelson will know that it has long been a byword in conservative evangelical circles for theological compromise. But in the seminary world, cultural relevance is a cruel, demanding, and insatiable mistress. Too much will never be enough.
The problem seminaries face is government money. Involvement in federal loan schemes for students brings responsibilities under Title IX. A defense under the First Amendment might be arguable but past legal precedents have drawn a tight connection between government money and public accommodations. And if a seminary is deemed a public accommodation, the First Amendment becomes an enemy, not a friend, as the idea of imposing a narrow confessional stand on staff and students becomes a restriction of freedom of speech and a confusion of church and state.
The other matter which could prove problematic is that of confessional consistency. If I were the lawyer suing a seminary for expelling a student for entering into a same-sex marriage, I would want to see how consistently the institution had applied its beliefs across the organization. Are there students or staff or faculty who have divorced in a manner that contradicts Christian teaching and yet remained in good standing with the school? To single out same-sex spouses while ignoring the adulterer who divorces and remarries would seem inconsistent with biblical teaching and liable to render any action against a select group vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. The Roman Catholic Church is the most obvious example here: Though her stated stand on sexual morality is correct, how she handled child abuse over many decades has damaged her moral authority to speak on the issue.
Institutions must not let the world’s obsession with LGBTQ matters distort their own concern for the whole counsel of God. We can be sure that lawyers who sue will be concerned with the whole counsel of God, if only in an attempt to expose moves like Fuller’s as selective and homophobic. Consistency is wise from a legal perspective and imperative from a religious perspective. I recently heard that a seminary knowingly readmitted a man from a wealthy donor family whose wife had divorced him for domestic abuse. If true, such a move surely invalidates any claims such a place might make in the future about having a high view of marriage or upholding Christian values.
Then there are the other aspects of the Christian faith which such places claim to defend. If a Christian institution tolerates or even encourages malicious slander and bullying among staff and students, then it contradicts its stated purpose of cultivating men and women of Christian character for service in the church. And if it applies one set of rules to the Untermenschen in the student body or staff and another to the scions of wealthy donor families and the favored few, then, quite frankly, it deserves to be sued.
Sadly, Christian institutions will likely respond to the Fuller case by moving into defensive mode, crying “First Amendment!” and putting lawyers on speed-dial. If that is all that happens, then that reaction in itself will speak eloquently of the moral tenor of such places. For the first reaction should be one of serious and prolonged institutional heart-searching and, where necessary, of true repentance and change.
I hope that Fuller wins its case, for the sake of religious institutions across the United States. But I hope that it does so because it proves itself to have been consistent in applying its stated beliefs and ethics to its constituency as a whole—from the top to the bottom of the institution, from the wealthiest donor to the poorest scholarship student. Religious freedom allows us to be consistent in our beliefs and practices in every area of our lives, even when those beliefs and practices meet with the disapproval of society at large. It is not a tool to provide cover for us when we wish to protect our wickedness and hypocrisy from appropriate public scrutiny.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.