Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church, has been embroiled in a public battle over its Biblical beliefs on sexuality for almost two years. The latest development is a lawsuit filed by a small but vocal group of SPU students and staff in Washington state’s Superior Court against the school’s trustee board, which the group claims is doing harm to the school by adhering to Biblical standards on marriage and sex.
The evangelical school’s longstanding Statement on Human Sexuality, a document that acknowledges disagreement over the issue, says that sex should be limited to “the context of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.” That view became publicly controversial in January 2021 after a male part-time faculty member who is married to a man sued the school after he was denied a full-time position.
While some students protested, the school’s leaders held firm to their Biblical commitments and their ties to the Free Methodist Church, which holds in its faith statement that “The Bible is God’s written Word, uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit. It bears unerring witness to Jesus Christ, the living Word.”
Since then, the trustees have reaffirmed their Biblical commitments, drawing more protests from some students and staff members, and also attracting an investigation from the Washington attorney general, who believes the school is illegally discriminating because of its religious beliefs.
“I appreciate the Board of Trustees at Seattle Pacific University standing with the Word of God,” Franklin Graham posted to Facebook back on 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.”
This summer, Attorney General Bob Ferguson had demanded to see the school’s policies on hiring and firing. SPU responded by suing Ferguson in July, alleging he is violating their constitutional religious freedom to make employment decisions based on their clearly stated religious beliefs.
Ferguson has a history of attempting to prosecute institutions and businesses that hold to Biblical beliefs on sexuality. His office relentlessly pursued legal action against Richland, Washington, florist Baronnelle Stutzman, who finally settled with the state this year after nine years of legal struggles over her refusal to create custom flowers for a homosexual wedding.
In the latest lawsuit filed Sept. 12, attorneys for the plaintiffs write that the case “is about accountability.”
“Defendants, trustees of an ecumenical and inclusive educational institution, must be held accountable for placing their personal religious beliefs above their fiduciary duties to SPU and its people.”
The suit accuses the trustees of inflicting “trauma on their fellow trustees and the entire campus. Defendants chose this path in order to defend a discriminatory hiring policy that undermined, and has torn apart, the heart and soul of SPU.”
It also seeks the removal of the trustees from their positions, and the appointment of new trustees and a new interim president for the school.
As Joshua Arnold of the Family Research Council wrote: “Religious freedom is meaningless if it does not grant religious institutions the right to govern its own members and fill its own offices according to its own beliefs. This unserious lawsuit represents a serious threat under the laws of the state of Washington, but it is entirely incompatible with religious freedom.”
In 1891, the Free Methodist Church of North America founded SPU. Today the school claims students and staff from some 50 different denominations, according to its website, with an enrollment of around 3,500 students.
At the time of Ferguson’s action to force SPU to change its employment standards, school leaders responded: “Disaffiliation [with the Free Methodist Church] would occur whether the University made this change voluntarily or under compulsion of law. This would result in the loss of a religious affiliation that has existed for over 130 years.”
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