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Seattle Pacific University Sues Washington State Over Probe Into LGBTQ Exclusion

By Alejandra Molina
seattle pacific protest
People demonstrate at Seattle Pacific University, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, after the Board of Trustees recently decided to retain a policy that prohibits the hiring of LGBTQ people. (Video screen grab via Twitter/Jeanie Lindsay)

Seattle Pacific University, a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, claims its rights are being violated by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office launched an investigation into the school’s hiring practices. At issue is the school’s policy, prohibiting the hiring of LGBTQ people.

Seattle Pacific University is suing Ferguson, claiming his probe aims to influence the university “in its application and understanding of church teaching,” according to the claim filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The university is represented by Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Becket Senior Counsel Lori Windham, in a statement, said Ferguson singled out the university “because of its Christian beliefs, demanding information about the school’s religious hiring practices and employees.” She said the university is asking a federal court to stop him from “interfering in the religious decisions of a Christian university seeking to remain true to its faith and mission.”

Ferguson’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The university was the site of daily protests for more than a month earlier this summer as students challenged the school’s ban on hiring LGBTQ people. Dissenting students called the policy homophobic and discriminatory.

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In a statement, students and others fighting against the hiring policy said the lawsuit shows “the university is still painting a portrait of a school that is being persecuted by outside forces for practicing their faith.”

seattle pacific
People participate in the third day of a sit-in at Seattle Pacific University, May 26, 2022, after the board of trustees recently decided to retain a policy that prohibits the hiring of LGBTQ people. (Photo via Twitter/@SPUisGay)

“We know this is not an issue of religious freedoms; rather it’s an issue of the people in power failing to uphold the university’s commitment to its own community.”

At issue is the school’s employee lifestyle expectation policy that states, in part, that “employees are expected to refrain from sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”

The controversy began after an adjunct nursing professor filed a lawsuit in January 2021, accusing the university of refusing him job opportunities because of his sexual orientation. Four months later, the university’s faculty in April 2021 took a vote of no confidence in its board of trustees after members of the board declined to change the hiring policy. The faculty also sought for the university to drop its statement on human sexuality. In the aftermath, a campus work group was assigned to study the issue and in May 2022 presented its recommendations. That’s when the board of trustees chose to retain the policy.

Students then staged a more than monthlong sit-in beginning in late May.

bob ferguson seattle pacific
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson. (Photo courtesy of Office of the Attorney General)

It’s believed students asked Ferguson to take legal action against the university’s board of trustees, according to the suit. Ferguson’s office sent a letter to the university, demanding “prompt production of voluminous and sensitive internal information on the University’s religious policies and their application to any and all faculty, staff, and administrators,” the complaint reads.

According to the complaint: “The letter clearly indicates that the attorney general considers ‘prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity’ to be in violation of the law … The First Amendment protects the ability of religious organizations to follow the teachings of their faith on marriage and sexual relationships outside marriage, and to maintain policies consistent with those beliefs.”

The university notes in the complaint that Free Methodists “believe sexual intimacy is a gift from God and is a great blessing in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.”

Ferguson’s probe, the complaint reads, infringes on the university’s First Amendment right “to govern itself according to religious principles, frame its policies and doctrine, and select its employees and leaders according to those religious principles without government interference.”

If the school were to change its employment policies to allow hiring Christians in same-sex marriages, the university “would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church” and “no longer be a denominational institution,” according to the lawsuit.

Julie Roys contributed to this report.

Alejandra MolinaAlejandra Molina is a national reporter for Religion News Service.



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18 Responses

  1. Whatever may be one’s opinion of homosexuality, it strikes me that the issue here is whether conservative institutions will be allowed to exist. I don’t see it as a huge leap to say that if Seattle Pacific University can be forced to hire gay faculty, then why not force conservative churches to ordain gay pastors? What’s the difference?

    If you think Seattle Pacific’s teachings are wrong, there are literally thousands of other institutions of higher learning from which to pick. Rather than forcing everyone to adopt your values, why not just find an institution that shares your values?

    1. Very well said, Kathleen. I’m glad to see SPU leadership standing up for itself and its church affiliation. I hope they prevail, and I hope they’re also seeking to recover all costs related to dealing with the AG. Even better (though unlikely), maybe the AG backs off now, rather than waste taxpayer money on a future First Amendment slap-down.

      But there is still trouble ahead for SPU, either way. Will dissenting faculty and students begin to resign or unenroll? Will the university will be consistent, moving forward, in enforcing adherence to church doctrine and its own written policies as a condition of both employment and enrollment?

      These are possible existential questions for the school. Based on the nonbinding but overwhelming faculty no-confidence vote and the student-led protests this last spring, I’m guessing SPU functionally ceased being a Free Methodist school a long time ago, and now the consequences of years (decades?) of institutional ambiguity will play out.

    2. We are living at a time where politics is being shoved down everyone’s throats with no tolerance showed for differing beliefs. This will lead to a bloody civil war and a lot of death on both sides of the political isle. It is a shame it will lead to this but when you think that there are political issues worth killing your fellow Americans over, this is where it leads. The pendulum has swung way over to the left and so I do not think they have any possibility of winning this war. I think Jesus said something about the peacemakers being blessed or something, but who listens to Him anyway? Not when politicians can be our blood thirsty little gods.

      1. Ralph, I’m going to address this bleak and despairing outlook as though it was honestly arrived at. Granted, high-stakes political and legal activism have brought us to some dark places as a society, but I don’t think we’re quite to the apocalyptic stage you describe.

        Most people who talk about looming civil war or societal collapse have something they’re trying to sell you. It’s spiritual poison, and it’s not going to produce good fruit in you. My advice: Stop listening to those sources and run away, fast. And if you’re a believer, don’t give up hope, man.

  2. “….Christians in same-sex marriages,” is a contradiction. Also, any private organization should be able to set its hiring policies. Go somewhere else to school. This is simply someone making an issue, to persecute those who follow God’s principles and word.

  3. Sincere religious belief does not let you violate the general law without consequence. Like flying 727s into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Or refusing to serve black people at your cafe open to the public.

      1. Brian, OK – you and I know that is silly. It is NOT illegal to not serve bacon. It IS illegal to discriminate in hiring practices – just like it IS illegal for segregationist evangelical institutions to not hire black people….or do you think that would be pretty cool???

        1. Greg Logan,

          The First Amendment is clear whether you like it or not: freedom of association. Generations of activist courts chose to ignore that just like the Second Amendment, but at last we have more strict constructionists on the court (five out of nine) that are capable of reading plain text.

          Your example is not valid. Nobody chooses the color of their skin and the color of their skin has no bearing on anything. You may not choose your attraction, but you do choose whether or not to engage in sex acts or relationships. I’m pretty sure SPU doesn’t fire faculty and expel students who once upon a time felt some desire for the same sex. Their guidelines are about CONDUCT, but I think you already knew that.

    1. So, John, in your opinion, should the government require conservative churches to ordain gay pastors? For that matter, should it require the Catholic church to ordain women?

      The difference, by the way, between your 9/11 example and Seattle Pacific University is that the stakes are higher. 9/11 resulted in thousands of deaths. SPU simply wants to be left alone. I agree with you that there is a tipping point at which religious beliefs are doing sufficient damage to justify state intervention — as in 9/11 — but this isn’t it.

    2. John, your reasoning is flawed. SPU is a PRIVATE religious college with religious values to uphold. It is not the right of the Oregon’s Attorney General to demand that the college’s board of trustees give up these religious values. It is not the same as a public restaurant. And your addition of hyperbole : “Like flying 727s into the Pentagon…” does not add credibility to your argument.

  4. This just came down today and relates to this story:

    “A federal appeals court panel has ruled that a Catholic school in Indiana can lawfully refuse to renew the contract of a guidance counselor because she was in a same-sex marriage, which violated Catholic teaching.

    A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Thursday in favor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Roncalli High School, rejecting a lawsuit from former guidance counselor Lynn Starkey and upholding a lower court ruling.

    Circuit Judge Michael Brennan authored the panel opinion, concluding that Starkey fit the legal description of a minister and could be dismissed by the school for rejecting Catholic teaching on marriage based on a ministerial exception.”

  5. Can the DNC be forced to hire Evangelical Christians who are Pro-Life? We are headed for a China like system where you have complete religious freedom as long as all your religious views and practices comply with the current government political dogma. Make no mistake this is a one way street. The rules the left is pushing on this issue will Never work in reverse when it impacts them.

    1. “All the leftist woke-ism in the world cannot compete with the wisdom of America’s founders as embodied in the First Amendment,” Attorney General Rokita said. “Just like the founders, we must remain resolute in resisting governmental intrusion into matters of faith and doctrine. Hoosiers have the right to worship as they choose, and churches have the right to uphold the beliefs they consider sacred.” Todd Rokita, Indiana Attorney General

      1. “leftist woke-ism”

        What is God’s name even is that??? Sounds like yet another evangelical fear-monger boogie-man…. By hey – good for the grift!

        1. Greg Logan,

          The last time I checked, right-wing state attorneys general weren’t finding bogus reasons to go after pro-LGBT college campuses. Your contribution here is preposterous.

          Pro-gay students and professors have tens of thousands of affirming campuses to join. They don’t want to go to the spheres where they find belonging; they want to take over the tiny handful of places that abide by a different viewpoint. Tell me the last time there was a grass-roots movement by the right to take over pro-LGBT churches, denominations, and universities.

  6. This is like enrolling at BYU, then suing them for kicking you out for living with your boyfriend – a clear violation of their Mormon faith.
    No. It’s not like these private, faith-based schools hide their beliefs and practices. They are open and often require an orientation for those outside the faith to understand the basis of school rules and requirements.
    These students need to find another place to attend school.

    1. Marin Heiskell,

      Well said. Nobody forces you to attend someplace that will impose their own limits on your behavior when countless others are freely available, and welcoming to your choices.

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