Christian college sues Washington attorney general
Seattle Pacific University says intrusive probe compromises its religious autonomy
A historic Christian university in the middle of a progressive-leaning city and state hit back Wednesday, suing to stop an investigation by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. The state started the probe after some students and faculty complained about the school’s adherence to Biblical views of marriage and sexuality.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday, Seattle Pacific University claims Ferguson’s investigation violates First Amendment guarantees of free speech, religious exercise, and religious assembly. The university is seeking a judgment declaring the three-term Democratic attorney general’s investigation unconstitutional and an order barring him from proceeding.
At the heart of the lawsuit is religious autonomy, said Becket Fund’s Lori Windham, who is representing the school. “The Supreme Court has guaranteed that right several times,” Windham said. “It has said the First Amendment protects churches and religious groups’ right to decide what they believe and who should lead them.”
The university, which is affiliated with the evangelical Free Methodist Church, claims state interference with its hiring process would be significant. “If the university changed its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, the university would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church,” the university says in its complaint, whether it does so voluntarily or under court order.
Ferguson sent a letter to the school June 8 precipitated by what he said was “information that suggests that the University may utilize employment policies and practices that permit or require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including by prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity.” It requests a wide range of internal documents relating to hiring practices going back five years.
For its part, the school insists that it does not discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation but on noncompliance with its standards of conduct. That position is reflected in the university’s Statement on Human Sexuality to which all faculty and employees are required to adhere. (Student Standards of Conduct also bars consensual sexual activity between students who are not married as well as “[c]ohabitation between two persons in an amorous relationship who are not married to each other,” though it does not define marriage.)
Those standards came to the forefront in a January 2021 lawsuit by an adjunct nursing professor who claimed he was not offered a full-time, tenured position because of his sexual orientation. University officials disputed that claim but pointed to the school’s “religious-based conduct expectations.”
By May 2021, the lawsuit was settled, the terms undisclosed, and the university made no further statement on the matter. That didn’t stop Jéaux Rinedahl, the disappointed adjunct professor, from talking—even after he said he was offered an opportunity to continue to teach part-time. “It’s a difficult decision to think about going back to an employer who simply hates you for who you are and what you stand for and for nothing to do with your personality or performance,” he told The Seattle Times.
Like many other Christian universities and colleges, Seattle Pacific has been roiled by demands from some faculty, students, and trustees that the school abandons its long-standing position that sexual activity is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.
After the Rinedahl settlement, some students and faculty called on the school to change its position on human sexuality. A working group of faculty, students, and trustees recommended changes that were ultimately rejected by the 12-member board of trustees. In late May, some students protested by staging a sit-in at the office of the university president, calling for the board members to reverse course or resign. So far, the board has held firm, although a couple of board members resigned for unstated reasons.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider an appeals court ruling that allowed a social work professor to proceed with her claim that the evangelical Gordon College in Massachusetts retaliated against her for advocating pro-LGBT views and opposing institutional standards on human sexuality. Yet four conservative judges in a concurring opinion questioned the court’s view of religious education and indicated that “in an appropriate future case, this court may be required to resolve this important question of religious liberty.” The case is ongoing.
Also ongoing is a lawsuit by former and current LGBTQ students at Christian colleges and universities challenging the Title IX exemption for religious colleges and universities as unconstitutional. In November 2021, a court heard arguments on a motion to compel Seattle Pacific and other universities to change their policies or lose federal funding, but no ruling has yet been issued.
Ultimately, conservative Supreme Court justices may be right: The court may need to weigh in on the tension between religious liberty and gay rights.
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