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Campus mutiny

Seattle Pacific University students and faculty demand the school ditch hiring policies affirming Biblical marriage. Will its board become the next to buckle?

Campus mutiny

On a cloudy afternoon in mid-January, students, alumni, and professors of Seattle Pacific University (SPU) stood in the street outside the university president’s house. They waved streamers and pool noodles to mark 6 feet of distance between them and called through masks into megaphones. Organizers handed out sheets of paper with a QR code that led to contact information for the school’s board of trustees and a script to rattle off demands. 

When the protesters dispersed, SPU’s student newspaper, The Falcon, reported they left rainbow-lettered signs in the street along with chalk messages for the president:

“Everyone is made in God’s image.”

“You’ve waited too [obscenity] long.”

The protesters wanted SPU to drop its policy of hiring only full-time faculty who affirm the school’s statement on human sexuality, which specifies Biblical marriage as between a man and a woman. After seeking comments from students and faculty, the board responded in April, announcing it would keep the policy. Days later, 90 percent of the faculty participated in a faculty vote, and 72 percent voted “no confidence” in the board, according to several news outlets. The school declined to comment to me on the vote.

Christian schools often worry about external threats from the government and secular opponents. But SPU also faces a threat from within. A slide in hiring practices and increasing acceptance of various sexual orientations has become a full-on mutiny as the board struggles to lead a school it no longer fully represents. Those who support the board’s decision say it hasn’t done enough to hold faculty and students to Biblical doctrines, which is the same reason other Christian schools have drifted from Biblical standards of sexuality.

THE FREE METHODIST Church founded SPU in 1891 as a seminary. Its leafy campus, a 10-minute drive from downtown Seattle, hosts about 3,600 students, and it recently cut tuition 25 percent in a bid to grow enrollment. Before COVID-19, students could attend Tuesday morning chapel in a wood-paneled Methodist church just off campus.

SPU is still officially affiliated with the denomination, but the Free Methodist Church’s control over SPU has waned. In 1992, the school’s articles of incorporation required 60 percent of SPU’s trustees to be members of the denomination. That dropped to 50 percent plus one by 2002, and in 2005, just five of 12-15 trustees had to be members of the Free Methodist Church. In 2014, just one-third of 12-18 trustees had to be members of the Free Methodist Church. By that point the board also had power to approve or reject the denomination’s trustee choices, rather than the denomination directly appointing members to the board.

The Free Methodist Church requires its affiliate schools to have lifestyle expectations consistent with its Book of Discipline, which describes homosexuality as a “distortion of God’s created order.” Leaving the denomination would require approval from 75 percent of SPU’s board of trustees. So one-third of trustees who are members of the Free Methodist Church could stop the school from quitting its affiliation. Changing the school’s faith and mission statements also requires 75 percent board approval.

In 1994, John West took a job teaching political science at SPU. As the board shifted away from Free Methodist Church control, West says, it also moved to a hands-off approach to the hiring and tenure process. West, who left SPU in 2006 to work at the Discovery Institute think tank in Seattle, said he eventually saw an email from a faculty distribution list boasting that the theology department didn’t have any members of the Evangelical Theological Society because that organization requires members to uphold Biblical inerrancy. West says a student once came to his office distraught that a theology professor had assigned a book arguing that God doesn’t know the future, without providing a counter argument.

Students have protested the school’s statement on human sexuality on and off for years. In 2001, The Falcon reported, the school altered lifestyle expectations in its student handbook, switching an entry in the list of prohibited activities from “homosexual activities” to “homosexual sexual activities.” The handbook now only prohibits cohabitation and sex outside of marriage. For years the board ignored letters asking it to ditch its current statement on sexuality altogether.

But in January, a lawsuit restarted the fight. Former adjunct nursing professor Jéaux Rinedahl sued the school, claiming it declined to hire him for a full-time position because he is married to a man. In its response, the school denies both that the position was open when Rinedahl applied and that he was rejected because of his marriage. SPU’s response says it hired a more qualified candidate.

“Employees are asked to abide by conduct standards in the Employee Handbook, which hold traditional views of marriage between a man and woman.”

SPU spokesperson Tracy Norlen wrote in an email, “Employees are asked to abide by conduct standards in the Employee Handbook, which hold traditional views of marriage between a man and woman,” but she declined to comment on the lawsuit. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious schools can consider religious background or affiliation in hiring. If Rinedahl’s account is accurate, it seems SPU applies this hiring ability to full-time, but not part-time, faculty.

After Rinedahl filed the lawsuit, a “letter of lament” written by faculty and staff in opposition to the hiring policy gathered 1,400 supporting signatures. The growing demands for the policy’s removal prompted the board to reconsider the policy, and its April decision to keep it kicked off another round of protests. Video of one evening gathering shows a few dozen people gathered on a central campus lawn. They sat on blankets, carried battery-powered candles, and planted a row of miniature pride flags into the lawn. One wore a pride flag as a cape. A man and woman sang the band Gungor’s song “Beautiful Things,” and students and a professor gave speeches opposing the hiring policy.

But not everyone is protesting the board’s choice. Reed Davis, an SPU professor of political science, said he favors traditional marriage but has spoken up less as the campus has grown more hostile to his position.

Some students also support the board: The Falcon published a student letter urging the board to maintain its position and strengthen its hiring policy. But it blamed the board for drift: “The board has also erred in requiring faculty to accept behaviors only, not doctrines,” the letter said.

After the board’s decision, students including senior Lincoln Keller received an email from associate professor and interim philosophy chair Leland Saunders. “I’m shocked and heart-broken by this news,” Saunders wrote. “This decision by the Board effectively reaffirms SPU’s commitment to discriminatory policies and practices.” One of senior Sophie Saxton’s professors devoted half a class to letting students “grieve” the board’s decision.

The letter also claims teachers have set aside class time for students to promote activism against the board’s policy, but students who disagree stay silent, fearful of public shaming. Saxton, a theater student, has avoided speaking up in support of Biblical marriage, worried she wouldn’t get cast in plays. Keller signed the letter and estimated based on conversations at honors program meetings that two-thirds of students agree with the protesters, while others hold the Biblical view of marriage but are largely afraid to speak up.

First Free Methodist Church, adjacent to the Seattle Pacific University campus.

First Free Methodist Church, adjacent to the Seattle Pacific University campus.

SPU MAY BE THE MOST striking example, but it isn’t the only school facing internal conflict. In Grand Rapids, Mich., Calvin University has also seen clashes recently. On March 9, student Paul Dick and some friends set up a folding table on a main campus lawn. A crowd quickly gathered, eyeing the blue banner Dick had made to hang off the front of the table: “LGBTQ IS SIN. THE BIBLE SAYS. Change my mind.”

Dick said the crowd cheered when a gust of wind blew over a poster of Bible verses, and some students brought pride flags and blared rock music. About an hour after Dick’s group set up, university officials arrived to shut down the demonstration. They cited COVID-19 safety concerns and said the group had received approval for an apologetics event, not an LGBTQ discussion. Afterward, students and alumni debated the event in op-eds and comment sections of the school newspaper, Chimes.

Like SPU, Calvin University began as a ministry training school for its denomination, what is now the Christian Reformed Church. Both Calvin and CRC maintain that homosexual activity is sinful but that homosexual orientation is not. And unlike SPU, Calvin’s denomination still gets final approval over board members, just over half of whom are required to be CRC members.

Calvin University

Calvin University

But some say Calvin’s efforts to encourage diverse ideas and welcome LGBTQ students has undercut that stance. Alumnus Glenn Bulthuis has long tracked what he considers liberal events the school hosts—the band Fun, for instance, performed at Calvin during a 2012 tour intended to encourage students to vote for LGBTQ rights. Ryan Balili, who taught physics at Calvin from 2015 to 2019, received an email from the assistant registrar in 2017 telling him a student in one of his classes was nonbinary and preferred the pronouns they/theirs/them. “You are encouraged to respect their pronoun usage, and refer to them in the appropriate way,” the email said.

When I asked the school whether it instructs professors to use students’ preferred pronouns, a representative wrote to me the email Balili got wasn’t school-sanctioned: “Professors are not directed to refer to students by their preferred pronouns.” Instead, administrators encourage the faculty member and student to talk with each other about the issue: “We want for the faculty member to understand the student and where they may be in their own process, and we want the student to respect the faculty member’s position.”

In October 2020, the Christian Reformed Church published a report proposing that the denomination classify its stance on same-sex marriage and gender identity as already “confessional”—in other words, declare that its stance on sexuality ranks just below apostolic creeds in authority and is not open to change. One-third of Calvin’s faculty signed a letter opposing the announcement, Chimes reported, though it noted that not all disagreed with its contents. Some worried about potential loss of academic freedom on the topic if the denomination declared its stance confessional.

After eight years on Calvin’s board, Allan Hoekstra resigned in 2020 and said in a statement to me that school administrators had avoided bringing faculty with un-Biblical views on sexuality to the board for review. Current board chair Bruce Los responded through a university spokesperson, “This statement is simply not true.” When Calvin students elected a student body president who then came out as gay in a Chimes article last fall, Hoekstra wrote that the students’ votes “bear clear witness to the instruction and guidance they are receiving during their time at Calvin.”

Micah Watson, an associate professor of political science at Calvin, defended the school. He pointed out that students don’t have to agree with the school’s beliefs and may differ publicly even as the administration upholds the denomination’s stance on sexuality. And while some think the school goes too far in embracing LGBTQ people, others think it doesn’t go far enough: Calvin consistently appears in the Princeton Review’s survey results for schools most hostile to LGBTQ students. “We get hit by both sides,” Watson wrote in an email. “I think it’s pretty exciting and sharpening for students and faculty to disagree with each other about important ideas within a larger Christian framework.”

Calvin University

Calvin University

But other Christian schools have eventually buckled after internal pressure against their sexuality statements. In 2004, Eastern Mennonite University took heat for firing professors over homosexual behavior, but the university’s president promised that the school would not cave. In 2015, after years of advocacy from students and faculty, Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College dropped their hiring ban on staff and faculty in same-sex marriages. They withdrew from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities to avoid splitting the organization.

In 2018, California’s Azusa Pacific University, like SPU founded by the Free Methodist Church, removed its ban on “romanticized” same-sex relationships, retaining only its universal ban on extramarital sex—much as SPU had done in 2001. Students had complained that the policy unfairly singled out homosexual students. After Azusa Pacific’s board of trustees said it hadn’t approved the change, the school reinstated the ban, only to drop it again.

Under President Joe Biden’s administration, Christian schools worry they’ll lose federal funding if they keep their policies. The Equality Act, which passed the House but awaits Senate approval, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to classes protected from discrimination in housing and employment, potentially opening religious schools to discrimination charges. A class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education filed in late March accused 25 Christian colleges, including SPU, of discriminating against LGBTQ students.

“Under President Joe Biden’s administration, Christian schools worry they’ll lose federal funding if they keep their policies.”

AT SPU, STUDENTS AND alumni aren’t waiting for legal challenges. Student government joined an alumni coalition to demand the board eliminate the policy by May 1 or face sanctions. The list of seven threats included withholding donations, seeking negative media attention, attacking fundraising events and enrollment, and asking local officials to condemn the school publicly, some of which they had already begun.

Senior Carl Cederborg also doesn’t plan to donate to SPU, though for different reasons. Cederborg signed the letter urging the board to keep its statement on sexuality. He’s grateful for his professors and peers and said their frequent challenges to his orthodoxy and politics ultimately strengthened his faith. But he’s frustrated by SPU’s campus culture of assuming that people who disagree with prevailing opinions on politics and sexuality are bigoted or close-minded. He said he wouldn’t want his child to attend the school.

Whether or not sanctions succeed in damaging the school, and even if the board maintains its stance, former professor West worries that SPU has already watered down its Christian witness in Seattle. “How do you get to a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian university that suddenly more than 70 percent of the faculty reject a Biblical view of sexuality? You get that when you don’t have an intentional hiring policy,” West said. “It leaves a really gaping hole in Seattle.”

—WORLD has updated this story since its original posting to state correctly the number of SPU trustees who must be members of the Free Methodist Church denomination, to clarify who wrote a "letter of lament" to the school, and to clarify a change to the SPU student lifestyle expectations.

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.



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