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A new challenge to religious autonomy

Lawsuit aimed at Washington’s Seattle Pacific University targets “rogue” trustees


Associated Press/Photo by Chris Grygiel

A new challenge to religious autonomy

A heated dispute at a Washington state college continued this week on a campus that has become a flashpoint for tension between LGBT activism and religious liberty. At issue is the right of a religious organization to adhere to Biblical teaching on sex and marriage.

Sixteen students, faculty, and staff members at Seattle Pacific University sued the school’s board of trustees for refusing to retract a longstanding policy of not hiring people who are in same-sex relationships. The suit contends the board violated its fiduciary duty to act in the school’s best interests.

In often incendiary language, the 56-page complaint, filed earlier this month, accused six “rogue” members of the board of staging a coup, traumatizing fellow trustees and the campus, and silencing and excluding other board members.

“The rogue board members derive power from their associations with extremist and supremacist organizations that, working together, knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate a form of white Christian supremacy that harms” LGBT and minority students and employees, the suit stated.

The plaintiffs claimed he university is imploding, with enrollment declining, budget deficits soaring, and faculty leaving. “The end result of the perilous process being orchestrated by these men will be no less than the death of SPU,” they stated.

Like many Christian colleges and universities, the purpose of the historic school—originally to prepare missionaries for service overseas—has morphed since its founding in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church. By the 1930s, the school had a four-year, accredited liberal arts program. Enrollment is open, so students need not be Christian. Even some faculty profess non-Christian beliefs. While it maintains an affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, it is independent both financially and in governance.

As the school has evolved, the community around it has undergone a sea change. In October 2020, a Nielsen poll showed that 10.7 percent of the city’s then 702,000 adults identified as LGBTQ–a percentage matching that of San Francisco. Yet a survey of the 3,400-member student body last year indicated that a surprising 22 percent of students identified as LGBTQ—twice that of the larger community, The Seattle Times reports.

Changing social mores have affected students, faculty, and staff. Former SPU President Dan Martin resigned in March 2021 in part because “a portion of the Board of Trustees were unwilling to adopt a policy to be more inclusive,” the lawsuit said. It went on to allege that former board chair Dennis Weibling, who was “LGBTQ+ affirming,” resigned in June 2021 before his term was completed. Others—whom the challengers term “loyal trustees”—resigned or declined reelection at the end of their term, including all the black trustees.

Yet the lawsuit may have more to do with swaying public opinion than actually prevailing in court, said Ernie Walton, a professor at Regent University School of Law. “With fiduciary duties … if a school has a policy that says we will, because of our Christian faith, not hire these types of people, and then they proceed to assert that Christian mission and actually enforce it, to say that they are breaching their fiduciary duties is outrageous,” said Walton. On the contrary, he said, to not follow through with established policies of the university would be a violation of their fiduciary duty to the school—even if those policies are unpopular.

It’s only the latest front in the cultural and theological battle for the school’s identity and governance. In July, the school took the offensive, suing to block an investigation by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson into the school’s employment practices after some students and faculty complained about the school’s adherence to Biblical views of marriage and sexuality. The lawsuit remains pending in a Washington federal court.

Though cast in language about breach of fiduciary or contractual duties, religious liberty experts say that at its core the university’s struggle is over religious autonomy: Can a Christian institution maintain its identity by adhering to Biblical principles in the face of cultural opposition? Interim SPU President Pete Menjares’ statement on the filing of July’s lawsuit reflected that concern. “For over 130 years, our university has been guided by our Christian mission and purpose, and we’re asking to continue that tradition,” said Menjares. “The faith commitment of our faculty and staff is an essential foundation to our identity as a Christian university.”

That’s a battle that will continue to be played out in the press, in board rooms, and in courtrooms: Who will define what is Christian, the institution or the culture? And who will enforce it, the institution or the state?


Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.

@slntplanet

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