Facing a state investigation for discriminatory hiring practices against LGBTQ+ people, Seattle Pacific University goes on the offensive and sues Washington Attorney General Robert Ferguson.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, accuses Ferguson of violating the Free Methodist Church-affiliated university’s constitutional right “to decide matters of faith and doctrine, to hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and to select and retain ministers free from government interference”.
At the root of the lawsuit is a policy that has long been a source of friction at Seattle Pacific: a ban on hiring openly gay faculty and staff, which the president and board have vigorously defended despite opposition from students, employees and alumni. Students came out and sat down to protest the policy; the council refuses to budge, fearing it will end his 130-year membership in the Free Methodist Church.
Seattle Pacific has filed suit in an investigation by Ferguson who asked the university to provide details of its policies regarding the hiring, promotion, discipline and firing of SPU employees related to their orientation sexual; identify and describe these cases; to provide complaints from current, former or prospective employees regarding issues relating to their sexual orientation; and share job descriptions and hiring criteria. The investigation, according to a letter to SPU, is examining “whether the University is meeting its obligations under state law.”
SPU subscribes to the belief that “the sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman”, according to its statement on human sexuality. Its policy states that “employees are expected to refrain from sexual behavior inconsistent with the University’s understanding of biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
In the lawsuit, lawyers for the Christian university accused the Washington attorney general “of exercising the power of the state to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university and a church, of which it is not disagree with beliefs. He uses the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University.
Acting President Pete Menjares, who has been the subject of protests, including from students who handed him rainbow flags at graduation instead of shaking hands — defended Seattle Pacific 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 we continue that tradition . The religious commitment of our faculty and staff is an essential foundation of our identity as a Christian university.
Lori Windham, lead attorney for Becket Law, which is representing SPU in its lawsuit against Ferguson, said in a statement that “the state is going after a 130-year-old Christian university and violating our country’s long-standing principle of the separation of Church and State.
Becket Law, a Washington, D.C.-based firm focused on religious liberty, represents SPU for free, Windham said. Inside Higher Education by email.
Ferguson fired back with his own statement Friday morning.
“Seattle Pacific University admits it refuses to hire gay faculty and staff. In May, Seattle Pacific University students and staff staged a sit-in and called for the removal of the board of trustees of the university after voting to keep in place school policies that prohibit employees from engaging in “same-sex sexual activity. Many Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others have contacted my office to file complaints or express deep concern that the policies of the university administration unlawfully violate the civil rights of Washingtonians,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson’s statement adds that it is the job of the attorney general’s office to protect “the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced detrimental discrimination.” That’s our job – we abide by Washington law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
Seattle Pacific University’s ban on gay employees has been the subject of fierce controversy in recent months, prompting the resignation of board members, drawing condemnation from the university community and prompting threats of lawsuits against the board administration. So far, community members have raised over $38,000 to fund a lawsuit against the council.
The policy itself has come under scrutiny following a lawsuit brought by Jeaux Rinedahl, a gay assistant nursing professor who sued SPU claiming he was denied a full-time position because of his sexual orientation. That lawsuit was settled out of court, according to the SPU website, but resulted in the creation of a task force that made policy recommendations to the board regarding the hiring of LGBTQ+ people. The task force made suggestions that would have allowed Seattle Pacific to change its policies in a way that kept it in position with the Free Methodist Church, but that process would have been corrupted by administrators leaking documents to the denomination, which caused the church to tighten its bonds. same-sex marriage policies. This meant that SPU would be kicked out of the Free Methodist Church if it changed its policies to accept LGBTQ+ employees, as the task force had recommended.
The board has voted twice to uphold SPU’s homophobic hiring policies, first in April 2021 following Rinedahl’s lawsuit and again in May 2022 after the task force released its recommendations. . The backlash since May has captured national and international headlines.
In a Thursday morning email, Menjares told campus voters the lawsuit was based on SPU’s “history and fundamentals.” He added, “While I am deeply aware that our community is divided on our expression of Christian life as it relates to LGBTQIA+ and faithful Christian living, I believe we can be united in our desire to protect and defend the right of the University within the framework of the law to hire. to mission within a voluntary community based on a framework of shared faith. We don’t want to lose that freedom. Likewise, we hope to protect our ability to practice a faith that welcomes students from all walks of life, including historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, to cultivate deep and flourishing relationships with Christ.
Menjares’ lawsuit and email further spurred opponents of SPU’s hiring policies.
Kevin Neuhouser, a sociology professor and co-chair of the task force that recommended the board change its policies, emailed Menjares and faculty members saying no one had asked “SPU to waive its right to hire exclusively Christians”. The change, he said, was intended to allow the hiring of Christians who are not heterosexual or heteronormative.
“It is shameful and hypocritical that SPU is suing an 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 fighting a legal battle for the “right to discriminate” – in fact, the right to discriminate against other followers of Jesus? ” he wrote.
Neuhouser further accused the administration and board of trustees of jeopardizing SPU’s “financial viability” by alienating current students, prospective students, faculty and staff, the Seattle community” and spending money for an “immoral lawsuit” even as budget cuts and layoffs loom at the institution.
Neuhouser abruptly concluded his e-mail: “I lost hope in the board of directors to defend our Christian identity; I lost faith in the administration of the SPU to defend our Christian identity. My only hope is that Attorney General Bob Ferguson will use the law to get SPU to do what we should be willing to do to be faithful to the God who is gracious, generous and forgives us far beyond anything we deserve…if only we could be imitators of the God we claim to love.
Similarly, the students and recent graduates who led the sit-in campaign against the SPU administration opposed the lawsuit, saying in a press release that they approved of the state’s investigation into the practices. hiring universities and condemning the complaint filed by the SPU.
“The school must be held accountable for its stance of maintaining harmful employment policies that do not reflect the values of SPU students, faculty, staff and alumni,” read a statement that organizers have sent to Inside Higher Education. “The greater Seattle Pacific community is disappointed that the school has decided to pursue a lawsuit that does not represent the interests or beliefs of the majority of the university. The fight for inclusive hiring policies does not is not a matter of religious liberty, but rather an outcry against the unchecked power of administrators to dictate “good” Christian practices in an ecumenical institution of higher learning.Seattle University of the Pacific presents itself as an ecumenical institution dedicated to inclusion of all different walks of Christian faith Invalidating all Christian traditions that affirm the LGBTQ+ community, Seattle Pacific [is] contrary to its own stated values and continues to perpetuate evil.
Ferguson’s office had not filed a legal response to the lawsuit as of press time.