Faced with a state investigation into discriminatory hiring practices against LGBTQ+ people, Seattle Pacific University is on the offensive by suing Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson.
Lawsuitfiled Wednesday, accuses Ferguson of violating the Free Methodist-affiliated university’s constitutional right to “decide matters of faith and doctrine, hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and select and retain ministers without government interference.”
At the heart of the lawsuit is a long-time divisive policy at Seattle Pacific: a ban on hiring openly gay faculty and staff that the president and Board of Trustees staunchly defended despite opposition from students, staff and alumni. Students have came out and was sitting protest against politics; the council refuses to budge because of fears it would end its 130-year membership of the Free Methodist Church.
Seattle Pacific filed the lawsuit amid the Ferguson investigation, which has asked the university to provide details of its policies regarding the hiring, promotion, discipline and firing of SPU employees based on their sexual orientation; identify and describe such cases; provide complaints from current, former or future employees related to problems of their sexual orientation; and share job descriptions and hiring criteria. The investigation, according to A a letter to the SPUexamines “whether the university is meeting its obligations under state law.”
SPU adheres to the belief that “sexual experience is meant to be between a man and a woman,” according to him A statement about human sexuality. Its policy states that “employees must refrain from sexual conduct inconsistent with the university’s understanding of biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sex, and same-sex sex.”
In the lawsuit, lawyers for Christian University accused the Washington attorney general of “using public authority to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university and a church with which he disagrees. He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University.”
Interim President Pete Menjares, who has become the target of protests, including from students presented him with rainbow flags at graduation instead of shaking his hand — Seattle Pacific defended in a statement announcing the lawsuit: “For more than 130 years, our university has been guided by our Christian mission and purpose, and we ask that this tradition continue. The commitment of our faculty and staff to the faith is an important foundation of our identity as a Christian university.”
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, which represents SPU in the lawsuit against Ferguson, said that “the state is targeting a 130-year-old Christian university and violating a long-standing principle of division in our country. church and state.”
Becket Law, a Washington, D.C.-based religious freedom firm, is representing SPU pro bono, Windham said Inside the higher ed by e-mail.
Ferguson opened his statement Friday morning.
“Seattle Pacific University admits it refuses to hire gay faculty and staff. In May, students and staff at Seattle Pacific University staged a sit-in and called for the removal of the university’s board of trustees after they voted to uphold a school policy that prohibits employees from engaging in “same-sex sexual activity.” “Numerous students, faculty and other staff at Seattle Pacific University have contacted my office to file complaints or otherwise express deep concern that university administration policies unlawfully violate the civil rights of Washingtonians,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson’s statement added that the attorney general’s job is to protect “the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination. This is our work – we support the law of Washington, which prohibits discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
Seattle Pacific University’s ban on gay employees has been the subject of bitter controversy in recent months, leading to the resignation of board members, condemnation from the university community and threats of legal action against the Board of Trustees. For now, friends of the community raised over $38,000 to fund a lawsuit against the board.
The policy itself was scrutinized in the wake of the lawsuit by Jos Rinedahl, a gay adjunct nursing professor who sued SPU alleging he was denied a tenure-track position because of his sexual orientation. That lawsuit was agreed out of court, according to the SPU website, but prompted the creation of a task force that presented recommendations to the board regarding the hiring of LGBTQ+ people. The task force made proposals that would have allowed Seattle Pacific to change its policy so that it would maintain its relationship with the Free Methodist Church, but the process was allegedly scuttled by trustees who released documents to the denomination that forced the church to toughen policy on same-sex marriage. This meant SPU would be expelled from the Free Methodist Church if it changed its policy on accepting LGBTQ+ staff, as recommended by the task force.
The board voted twice to uphold SPU’s homophobic hiring policy, first in April 2021 after Rinedal’s lawsuit and again in May 2022 after the task force made its recommendations. The backlash has made national and international headlines since May.
In a Thursday morning email, Menjares told campus voters that the lawsuit was based on SPU’s “core history and principles.” He added: “While I am deeply aware that our community is divided over our LGBTQIA+ and faithful Christian life, I believe we can come together in our desire to protect and defend the university’s right under the law to hire for mission in a voluntary community based on a common framework of faith. We do not want to lose this freedom. In the same way, we hope to protect our ability to practice a faith that welcomes students from diverse backgrounds, including historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, to cultivate a deep, thriving relationship with Christ.”
The lawsuit and Menjares’ email further galvanized opponents of SPU’s hiring policy.
Kevin Neuhauser, a sociology professor and co-chair of the task force that recommended the board change its policy, sent a letter to Menjares and faculty, arguing that no one asked “SPU to waive its right to hire exclusively Christians.” The change, he said, was to allow Christians who are not heterosexual or heteronormative to be hired.
“It is disgraceful and hypocritical for SPU to sue the Attorney General who is investigating whether or not SPU is discriminating. When—and how—did “Christian” become synonymous with discrimination and prejudice in the United States? Why are we litigating the ‘right to discriminate’—actually the right to discriminate against followers of Jesus?” he wrote.
Neuhauser also accused the administration and board of “jeopardizing SPU’s financial viability by alienating current students, prospective students, faculty and staff, the Seattle community” and spending money on “immoral litigation” even as budget cuts and layoffs loom . institution.
Neuhauser ended his email sharply: “I have lost hope in the Board of Trustees to protect our Christian identity; I have lost faith that the SPU leadership can protect our Christian identity. My only hope is that Attorney General Bob Ferguson will use the law to force SPU to do what we must do voluntarily to be faithful to a God who is merciful and generous and forgives us far more than we deserve…if only we could to be imitators of the God we profess to love.’
Similarly, students and recent graduates who led a sit-in against the SPU administration ruled out a lawsuit, saying in a news release that they support the state’s investigation into the university’s hiring practices and condemning the complaint filed by SPU.
“The school must be held accountable for its position in supporting harmful employment policies that do not reflect the values of SPU’s students, faculty, staff and alumni,” organizers said in a statement. Inside the higher ed. “The greater Seattle Pacific community is disappointed that the school has chosen to file a lawsuit that does not represent the interests or beliefs of the majority at the university. The fight for an inclusive hiring policy is not a religious freedom issue, but rather a protest against the unchecked power of administrators to dictate “correct” Christian practices in an ecumenical higher education institution. Seattle Pacific University advertises itself as an ecumenical institution dedicated to the inclusion of all different strands of the Christian faith. Overturning all Christian traditions that affirm the LGBTQ+ community, Seattle Pacific [is] inconsistent with its own stated values and continues to cause harm.”
Ferguson’s office had not filed a legal response to the lawsuit at the time of publication.