Story at a glance
- A private Christian university in Washington state has filed a federal lawsuit against the state’s attorney general over an investigation into the school’s hiring policies.
- Seattle Pacific University in its employee handbook requires employees to refrain from engaging in “same-sex sexual behavior,” which its says is inconsistent with the university’s “understanding of Biblical standards.”
- In a statement, Bob Ferguson, the state’s attorney general, said his office was investigating “potential illegal discrimination” by the university’s administration.
Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a private Christian university in Washington state, has filed a lawsuit against Bob Ferguson, the state’s attorney general, over an investigation into the university’s anti-LGBTQ+ hiring policy.
In a July 29 statement, Ferguson confirmed that his office was investigating “potential illegal discrimination” by SPU’s administration and said the university had admitted to refusing to hire gay faculty and staff members.
“My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination,” Ferguson said. “That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
SPU made national headlines earlier this year when dozens of graduating seniors handed small rainbow flags to Interim President Pete Menjares to protest the school’s employment policy.
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In May, the university’s board of trustees voted to keep policies in place that prohibit school staff from engaging in “same-sex sexual activity,” which, according to SPU’s employee handbook, is inconsistent with the university’s “understanding of Biblical standards.”
Ferguson in his statement confirming the probe into the school’s hiring practices said he had received “numerous” complaints from SPU students and faculty concerned that the university is intentionally violating state civil rights law by discriminating against LGBTQ+ people.
He said his office responded to the complaints by sending a letter to SPU’s administration informing them that an inquiry had been opened to determine whether the university is “meeting its obligations under state law.”
The letter dated June 8 also asks SPU to produce information related to its hiring practices and any policies governing the promotion, discipline or termination of staff as it relates to their sexual orientation or status of being in a same-sex relationship.
In response, SPU filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the investigation, claiming that Ferguson’s probe violates the university’s First Amendment rights by attempting to infringe on the school’s freedom to make decisions about its faith and its employees “free from governmental interference.”
Neither Ferguson’s letter to the university nor the announcement of the investigation into its hiring practices were made public until after the suit was filed.
According to the university’s complaint, Ferguson’s investigation inquires into “confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution.”
“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,” the complaint reads. “He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University.”
In emailed comments to Changing America, Lori Windham, senior counsel at Beckett, who is representing SPU, said Ferguson has “singled out” the university over its Christian beliefs.
“For years, American courts have been clear that external officials cannot dictate how religious institutions live out their faith commitments,” Windham said. “Our laws protect religious universities from unlawful demands by governmental officials.”
Ferguson in his statement said his office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions.
“As a person of faith, I share that view,” Ferguson said. “My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.”
He added that the university’s refusal to answer his office’s questions about its hiring practices and subsequent lawsuit demonstrates that the administration believes it is above the law to an “extraordinary degree.”
“Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed,” he said.
SPU is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by 33 former students of more than two dozen Christian universities who say they faced discrimination on campus because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
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