Fuller Theological Seminary is now facing a Title IX lawsuit from a former student, a student who had been expelled from Fuller because that student had entered into a legal civil same-sex marriage that was not recognized or sanctioned by Fuller. Now, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any institution of higher education receiving federal funding (which Fuller does, especially in the form of student loans). While this law certainly does allow exemptions for religious institutions, the reality is that such exemptions are under increasing scrutiny and their status is ever more tenuous. We all know, of course, that the Obama administration had worked to increase the reach of the government in enforcing Title IX on behalf of LBGTQ+. We all know as well that the Trump administration has backed away from this. Yet the threat remains.
The problem faced by seminaries is the acceptance of government money. While few seminaries actually receive direct funds for their programs, nearly every seminary is involved in the federal
loan programs for their students and this encumbers them with certain responsibilities under Title IX. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Now that this will enter the courts, the hope is that the seminary will find protection from the justice system and this will be good news for us all. Yet it may not stave off the inevitable. Church owned and operated colleges, universities, and seminaries which accept students and their borrowed money through federal student loan programs are increasingly under the gun when it comes to federal intrusion into their affairs. Nowhere is this more true than in the enforcement of the rights of LBGTQ+ students. Some of these schools have the resources to swear off federal funds and operate independently (as Hillsdale College does) but the vast majority cannot exist in their current state without accepting federal student loan money. This is where it hits us as a church body operating such colleges, universities, and seminaries.
Rome is certainly our ally in this area and they breathed a sigh of relief when Hosanna-Tabor was decided by SCOTUS in favor of the church. But they are not an easy ally. Their own moral credibility has been stained by the sexual abuse scandals still unfolding. They have deep pockets when it comes to defending themselves in court but their own hierarchical structure is still quite different from our own and offers a complicated connection to how we operate as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, for example.
At the very least, consistency is the key to defending our separation and exemption. The very same religious freedom that allows us to act even freely and operate without constraint when our beliefs and practices conflict with society as a whole require us to be consistent in our application of those beliefs and
practices to every area of our lives. Freedom cannot be used as a cover for our failures to act consistently or as a protection against our own moral failings and
hypocrisy. So the burden remains on us and how we operate our educational institutions. We are never really free from public scrutiny even when we enjoy the protection of the courts to operate in conflict with stated policy of the government or the prevailing wind of culture.
It would be best if we had no strings. If we did not accept any form of government aid, including the more covert aid of student loan programs, loan guarantees, or grants, we might be better off. The problem is that we cannot afford to do that and continue our educational institutions the way they are now. These are certainly the challenges facing us as a church body and they are already on the agendas of every board of regents of our schools. We are not alone but the numbers of our allies grows ever smaller. These are challenging times, my friends.