A Christian university is suing the attorney general of Washington state over an investigation into its hiring practices that university officials say violate the school’s religious freedom.
Seattle Pacific University (SPU) filed suit on July 27 against state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is investigating potential illegal discrimination over the university’s refusal to hire LGBT applicants based on its statement of faith.
In the 22-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, SPU said Ferguson “is wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”
“He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University,” the suit stated.
The complaint claims that Ferguson’s investigation compels SPU to release “information on internal religious matters and decisions, detailed review of religious hiring practices, communications with ministerial employees, and even the selection of the University’s president, senior leadership, and board of trustees.”
A June 8 letter Ferguson sent to SPU requests that the institution to “[p]roduce any policies governing the hiring, promotion, discipline, and/or termination of University faculty, staff, and administrators, as it relates to their sexual orientation or status of being in a same-sex marriage and/or intimate relationship.”
“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,” attorneys for SPU said in the complaint.
In response to the lawsuit, Ferguson released a statement confirming the civil rights investigation.
“We did not publicize the letter, nor did we announce our investigation. In response to our inquiry, Seattle Pacific University filed a federal lawsuit,” the attorney general stated.
“The lawsuit demonstrates that the University believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the University’s compliance with state law.”
Ferguson launched the investigation after “[n]umerous Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others reached out to my office to file complaints or otherwise express deep concern that the University administration’s policies illegally violate Washingtonians’ civil rights.”
The private evangelical Christian and Wesleyan institution is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church and enrolls around 3,500 students. The institution claims it adheres to the biblical definition of human sexuality.
Last year, SPU faced criticism after its board of trustees announced it would continue a hiring policy that prohibits hiring full-time faculty members who identify as LGBT.
SPU’s Faculty Senate obtained responses from around 90% of the faculty on the board’s decision to maintain that policy despite objections from some in the school community.
Around 72% of the faculty who responded agreed with the “no confidence” vote regarding the board and its decision, according to The Seattle Times.
“The Board’s decision to maintain SPU’s discriminatory hiring policy related to human sexuality, as well as its manner of delivering that decision, have regrettably compelled the faculty of SPU to pass a vote of no confidence in the SPU Board of Trustees,” the faculty senate said.
In May, SPU’s policies attracted national attention following a student protest over the board’s vote to “retain Seattle Pacific University’s current employee lifestyle expectations regarding sexual conduct.”
“We want the community of SPU to know that this was a thorough and prayerful deliberation,” Board Chair Cedric Davis said in a statement.
“While this decision brings complex and heart-felt reactions, the Board made a decision that it believed was most in line with the university’s mission and Statement of Faith and chose to have SPU remain in communion with its founding denomination, the Free Methodist Church USA, as a core part of its historical identity as a Christian university.”
SPU is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which is opposing a lawsuit filed by former students from over two dozen Christian universities who say they felt discriminated against on their campuses. The lawsuit seeks to overturn religious exemptions to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act that allows faith-based institutions to adhere to scriptural beliefs on sexuality and gender.
Ferguson, who has served as attorney general of Washington since 2013, has a history of bringing charges against Christian entities deemed to have violated the state law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In 2013, Ferguson filed a consumer protection lawsuit against Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman for refusing to provide floral arrangements to a same-sex wedding on the ground that doing so went against her Christian convictions.
After a lengthy legal battle, Stutzman agreed to pay $5,000 to settle the lawsuit and announced her retirement.