Seattle Pacific University Sues Washington Attorney General’s Office Over Investigation Into Hiring Practices
A couple months ago I reported on what’s been happening at Seattle Pacific University. Their Board of Trustees is standing firm on a belief about sexuality that Christians once agreed on. That sex is intended only for marriage between a man and a woman. Full-time employees at SPU — as they are required to be Christians — are expected to both echo this belief and to live in accordance with it.
But a majority of SPU’s faculty, staff and students have been clamoring to revise this historic policy. They want to allow for the hiring of LBGTQ+ employees. This May, SPU’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution to this effect with an over 80% vote. SPU is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church. SPU can’t ditch their sexuality policy without also ditching their Free Methodist affiliation.
Now we could bark about mission drift. How did SPU get to the point where over 80% of their faculty are out of bounds on this issue? It’s a key point of Christian belief. How were employees vetted in the last decade or so, while public opinion on same-sex marriage has rapidly evolved, even among Christians? On the other hand, it’s praiseworthy that the Board is standing firm in the face of growing opposition.
A New Opponent: Washington’s Attorney General
Since June, SPU has gained a new opponent in this fight. One from above, as it were: Washington’s Attorney General Office has launched an investigation into SPU’s hiring practices. They are looking into “possible discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.”
The AG’s Office says their inquiry stems from complaints and concerns they’ve received from SPU employees. The AG’s Office seems to view their inquiry as routine, explaining that they asked “basic questions” about the University’s compliance with state law.
That’s not how SPU sees it. Hence the lawsuit.
SPU finds the AG’s requests to be overly broad, as lawyers like to say. They’re asking for too much info, some of which is confidential and private. That’s how Lori Windham, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, puts it. The Becket Fund is representing SPU. The brief was filed in a U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington. The complaint says: “The attorney general is wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”
Washington’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, seems to deny that he disagrees with SPU’s beliefs. A portion of Friday’s statement reads, “My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions. As a person of faith, I share that view.”
It isn’t clear what “that view” refers to. What is clear is that SPU refuses to hire faculty and staff who participate in gay or lesbian activity. SPU has never sought to hide that fact. That’s the policy their Board of Trustees voted to keep, even if its wildly unpopular with their own employees.
Ferguson’s office says they’re asking “basic questions.” Their June 8 letter has four questions, at least two of which seem huge. One asks that SPU provide the AG’s Office with a description of every instance that SPU has applied its sexuality policy in decisions around hiring, promoting, disciplining or terminating employees. The AG Office also asks for the names and contact info of all people to whom those policies had been applied. A second question asks for the job descriptions of every position at the school.
Why does the AG need all this information? There is only one relevant question at stake: Does SPU have the right, as a religious employer, to discriminate on the basis of religion? If they do, then they have the right to apply their sexuality policy once or 100 times. Doesn’t matter. The policy flows directly from the school’s religious identity.
Two Areas of Legal Wrangling
While it looks like an open-and-shut case, there are two areas of legal wrangling that can be anticipated.
One, can religious organizations discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation for some jobs or for all jobs? Denise Diskin, an attorney with QLaw Foundation of Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ clients, argued on behalf of a bisexual lawyer who was denied employment by Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Diskin won a WA State Supreme Court ruling on behalf of her client. The Court ruled that the Union Gospel Mission could only discriminate if the job candidate is applying for a ministerial role. They kicked the case back down to a WA trial court to see if the job in question meets that condition.
You see, then, the relevance of the AG office asking SPU for the job description of every position at the school.
Two, some members of the LBGTQ+ community claim to be Christians. On page 8 of their brief, SPU even refers to “Christians in same-sex marriages.” SPU appeals to their Free Methodist Church affiliation as the reason why such Christians can’t be hired. The AG’s office could question the legitimacy of this claim or pick at whatever proof SPU provides in this regard. The argument could be, “Hey, we’re not asking you to hire non-Christians. Just Christians who have a different belief than yours on same-sex marriage. If they practice chastity in singleness and faithfulness to their same-sex spouse, what’s the difference?
There is a difference, of course. But the rationale is counter-cultural. And perhaps difficult to show in court, if SPU has the burden of proof. The other piece still out there is that a group of students, faculty, staff and alumni have retained a lawyer. They plan to bring a lawsuit against the university for breach of fiduciary duty.
This is an importance case for other Christian universities to be following. Particularly ones in deeply blue states.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).