SEATTLE — Seattle Pacific University has filed suit against state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, charging that his investigation into possible hiring discrimination against LGBTQ+ people violates the school’s constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.
“The attorney general is wielding state power to interfere with the
religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with,” reads the 22-page complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Ferguson fired back in a Friday statement that SPU’s lawsuit “demonstrates that the university believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the university’s compliance with state law.”
The legal wrangling taps into a long-running controversy at SPU, a private Seattle institution affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, over school policies that forbid the hiring of people in same-sex marriages and require faculty and staff to abide by a statement that sex be between a married man and woman.
The policies, highlighted by an adjunct nursing professor’s now-settled lawsuit alleging SPU denied him a promotion because he’s gay, led faculty to cast a vote of no confidence in the school’s board last year. Students and other members of the school community also staged a rolling two-month sit-in outside the president’s office in the spring and summer.
SPU is one of many religious schools and organizations across the country wrestling with their positions toward LGBTQ+ people at a time that same-sex marriage has become ever more common and many queer people of faith want to participate fully in spiritual communities. At the same time, local and national lawsuits are continually clarifying discrimination law — and raising yet more questions to be settled in court.
The latest chapter in SPU’s saga began when Ferguson’s office sent a June letter to the university after hearing complaints from students, faculty and staff about the school’s hiring and sexual conduct policies.
Those policies may violate the state’s anti-discrimination law, the letter said. To find out, Ferguson’s office said it needs a wealth of information, including every instance in which the university has applied its LGBTQ+ policies in decisions around hiring, promoting, disciplining and terminating faculty and staff. The office also requested the names and contact information of people to whom those policies had been applied, as well as job descriptions of every position at the school.
That’s an overly broad demand for confidential and private information, said Lori Windham, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
The request also relates to the internal workings of a 130-year-old religious institution, an intrusion that runs afoul of the First Amendment right for religious organizations to decide for themselves how to exercise their faith, according to SPU’s lawsuit.
The complaint said SPU would be disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church if it hired people in same-sex marriages.
Ferguson, in his statement, said he’s a person of faith who respects the constitutional rights of religious institutions. But he said his office’s job is to protect the civil rights of Washingtonians and uphold anti-discrimination law.
What that means is not entirely settled, according to Denise Diskin, an attorney with QLaw Foundation of Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ communities.
Diskin recently won a victory at the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit on behalf of a bisexual lawyer that Union Gospel Mission declined to hire. Because of a so-called ministerial exception in federal anti-discrimination law, the high court ruled that religious organizations can only discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation if a job candidate is applying for a ministerial role. The justices kicked the case back to the trial court to determine whether the job sought by Diskin’s client counts as ministerial.
Even so, federal law allows faith-based organizations to discriminate for all positions on the basis of religion, Diskin pointed out. In other words, a Christian organization can say it will only hire Christians.
She said the next legal question, yet to be decided is: “What is it that makes someone a member of a religion?”
“LGBTQ Christians would disagree with the idea that they are not members of their religions by virtue of their sexual orientation,” Diskin said.
SPU is signaling that it’s taking a different position, saying in its statement that it’s “defending its right to hire Christian faculty.”
Chloe Guillot, who just got an undergraduate degree from SPU and is about to start working toward a master’s through the university’s divinity program, expressed disappointment in the lawsuit, which she said doesn’t represent the school community.
Guillot, who helped organize the sit-in, said her opposition to the LGBTQ+ policies “is not about trying to erase SPU’s Christian values. It’s about expanding what it means to be a Christian university.”
SPU could be one, she said, even if it disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church.
Guillot is part of a group of students, faculty, staff and alumni that may put yet more pressure on the university. The group, she said, has retained a lawyer and is preparing to bring a lawsuit against the university for breach of fiduciary duty.