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Student Sues Seminary After Expulsion Over Same-Sex Marriage

Student Sues Seminary After Expulsion Over Same-Sex Marriage

Joanna Maxon attended Fuller Theological Seminary for three years before the school found out about her marriage from her tax returns.

A woman who says a California seminary expelled her for being in a same-sex marriage has now sued the school, claiming Title IX protections.

Joanna Maxon filed a lawsuit against Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational evangelical Christian seminary, according to Inside Higher Ed. In her lawsuit, Maxon said the school started disciplinary proceedings against her after the school's financial aid office flagged tax returns filed jointly with the student's wife.

Now Maxon claims the religious school's actions against her violate Title IX, a provision of federal law banning discrimination based on sex. The case could test whether religious institutions can discriminate against gender and sexual minorities based on their own dogma, or whether that violates students' privacy and individual rights.

Paul C. Southwick, Maxon's attorney, said the suit does not explicitly accuse Fuller of violating the student's privacy, but that it was inappropriate to share tax return information within the institution without any legitimate education interest.

"That information on tax returns is protected by FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], and it can only be used for what the student authorizes it to be used for," Southwick said. "There does appear to be an exception for educational purposes, if it's necessary for some kind of educational purpose beyond financial aid, but otherwise it can't be disclosed even internally to the institution. For example, you wouldn't want the financial aid office emailing your tax returns to professors or other administrators."

Southwick told Bloomberg Law the expulsion happened without warning.

Maxon "was authentic with the university and was accepted by students and professors after she married her wife," Southwick told Bloomberg Law via email. "A publicly funded institution should not be allowed to suddenly expel a student because of her same-sex marriage, especially one who has invested over three years of time and money completing her degree."

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