Seattle Christian University is suing the Washington state attorney general, alleging religious discrimination, over his efforts to investigate the institution’s anti-LGBTQ employment policies.
In accordance with complaintAttorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, notified Seattle Pacific University said on June 8 that its office is seeking internal information and reporting on the policy, which has been widely criticized by Seattle Pacific students and faculty and has drawn national attention in recent months. The policy states that university employees must refrain from “cohabitation, extramarital sex, and same-sex sex.”
Students at the university have been protesting this policy for a year and a half, and this summer they held a sit-in strike more than a month out of the office of Interim President Pete S. Menjares. But the university administration refused to change the policy. Student activists said this month they plan to sue Seattle Pacific’s Board of Trustees for “breach of fiduciary duty,” arguing that the policy has damaged the university’s reputation and, by extension, the value of their degrees.
Seattle Pacific is an affiliate of the Free Methodist Church of North America, which passed a resolution this year that directly affects the university. The resolution states that if the university changes its employment policy so that it does not align with the church’s teachings on sexual behavior, it will lose its affiliation with the church.
The university’s lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, alleges that the Free Methodist Church would sever ties with Seattle Pacific if it changed its policy, either voluntarily or “under compulsion of law.”
“This will result in the loss of a religious affiliation that has existed for more than 130 years,” the complaint states. The university, which has 3,400 students, was founded in 1891.
By threatening that relationship with the Free Methodist Church, the complaint alleges, the Washington state attorney general is violating First Amendment protections of religious freedom. Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, which is representing Seattle Pacific in the case, said Ferguson “singled out” the university because of his Christian beliefs.
“The attorney general is using public authority to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university and church with whose beliefs he disagrees,” the complaint states. “He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University.”
“For years, American courts have made it clear that outside officials cannot dictate how religious institutions fulfill their religious obligations,” Windham said in an email to Chronicle. “Our laws protect religious universities from illegal demands by government officials.”
Reached for comment, the attorney general’s press secretary said Chronicle to a statement saying Ferguson’s office has not “prejudged whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies are illegal” and is committed to complying with Washington law forbidding discrimination.
“The lawsuit demonstrates,” the statement said, “that the university considers itself above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is precluded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the university’s compliance with state law.”