Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, is suing Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for launching an investigation into the school’s hiring practices. The university argues that Ferguson is “wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”
The university has had a long-standing policy regarding employee lifestyle expectations, listing several behaviors staff members are expected to refrain from. One such behavior is “sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
Despite knowing about and having access to the employee lifestyle expectation policy, Jéaux Rinedahl, an adjunct nursing professor, sued the school in January 2021. He claimed SPU unlawfully discriminated against him because he was not offered a full-time, tenured position due to his homosexual identity.
In April 2021, SPU’s faculty took a vote of no confidence in its board of trustees after the board refused to change the school’s policy on employee lifestyle expectations. According to The Seattle Times, nearly 72% of the faculty agreed with the “no confidence” vote.
Rinedahl’s lawsuit was settled out of court in May 2021, but some students and faculty continued to push the issue further, demanding that board members either abandon the employee lifestyle expectations policy or resign. In May 2022, a group of students even staged a monthlong sit-in at the office of SPU’s president. The board stood firm.
“I appreciate the Board of Trustees at Seattle Pacific University standing with the Word of God,” Franklin Graham posted to Facebook June 2. “Like Daniel of old, they determined not to be moved by the changing winds of culture. Even though standing with the truth of God’s Word brings opposition and criticism, I pray they will stay the course.”
On July 29, Ferguson announced a civil rights investigation into SPU for refusing to hire LGBTQ faculty and staff. In turn, SPU filed suit, contending that “the attorney general’s probe inquires into confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution.”
The university noted in its complaint that if it were to change its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, “the University would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church” and “would no longer be a denominational institution.”
“Disaffiliation would occur whether the University made this change voluntarily or under compulsion of law,” SPU added. “This would result in the loss of a religious affiliation that has existed for over 130 years.”
Ferguson, who has served as attorney general of Washington since 2013, is also known for filing a consumer protection lawsuit against Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman for refusing to provide floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding on grounds that doing so went against her Biblical beliefs.