Protests, Pride Flags, Lawsuits: Inside a Christian University’s Fight for LGBTQ Inclusion | Sojourners

Protests, Pride Flags, Lawsuits: Inside a Christian University’s Fight for LGBTQ Inclusion

Students participate in the May 17, 2022 ‘Day Against Homophobia’ protest at Seattle Pacific University. Giao Nguyen/Courtesy 
The Associated Students of Seattle Pacific.

Over the last year, the majority of Seattle Pacific University’s community has been unwavering in its affirmation of LGBTQ equality on campus.

According to a campus survey conducted by the undergrad­­­uate student government and graduate psychology students, nearly 87 percent of students and 73 percent of staff at SPU disagree with the school’s employee lifestyle policy that prohibits “same-sex sexual activity” and has been used to discriminate against hiring full-time staff and faculty in same-sex relationships.

Nevertheless, on July 1, the evangelical university’s board of trustees affirmed — for a third time in about a year — that the school would not change its employee policy. For students and faculty who had spent more than a year writing resolutions, compiling surveys, serving in working groups, and coordinating a now-viral pride flag graduation protest, it was a frustrating and infuriating decision.

But they aren’t giving up: Now, a group of students and alumni are preparing to sue the board of trustees for a breach of fiduciary respo­nsibility — alleging that the board is not acting in the best interest of the school.

How Seattle Pacific became LGBTQ-affirming

When Kevin Neuhouser joined Seattle Pacific University as a professor in the sociology department in 1996, the school was so deeply entwined with evangelical politics and culture that sex and gender were rarely, if ever, discussed.

“[Sex and gender issues] were just invisible,” Neuhouser told Sojourners. “There was a heteronormativity consensus.”

In 2007, that began to change. LGBTQ activists, many of whom were Christian, began visiting conservative Christian campuses — including SPU — to start dialogues around changing policies that oppressed LGBTQ people. In response, more LGBTQ students at SPU started coming out, Neuhouser said, and they organized a group for LGBTQ students.

“The university immediately told them they couldn’t be an official student club,” he said. And the school took seven years before allowing the group, Haven, official status.

Neuhouser attended the students’ first meeting in 2007 in hopes that faculty attendance would dissuade any conservative protesters’ desire to disrupt the meeting. No disruptors came, so Neuhouser turned his attention to the students.

“I was intrigued by what the students were doing, so I came back for their second meeting,” he said. “In their third meeting — since I was the only faculty member who had shown — they asked me to be the advisor and I felt, ‘Oh, I guess this is something I am supposed to do.’”

In the 15 years since, the school has transformed from a community where only one faculty member attended an LGBTQ student meeting to a community where, in 2022, over 150 — 80 percent of voting faculty — affirmed a recommendation to “revise the employee conduct policy to allow for same‐sex sexual activity within the context of marriage, thus making individuals in same‐sex marriages eligible for employment.”

Presentation of inclusion

In personal interactions on campus, many students, faculty, and staff have long experienced SPU as a warm, affirming place for LGBTQ folks. And until recently, they had no idea the university policies were not equally affirming.

Chloe Guillot, who graduated from SPU with degrees in Christian theology and social justice and cultural studies in 2022, told Sojourners they did not originally plan to attend a Christian university after high school.

“I visited SPU anyways because I really liked Seattle. And I was definitely sold on this vision of a super loving, inclusive, and progressive school,” they said.

In Guillot’s freshman year, students protested — unsuccessfully — to add orientation and gender identity to the schools’ policy. But as Guillot told Sojourners, they didn’t know the school maintained a discriminatory hiring policy until January 2021, when Jéaux Rinedahl, an adjunct nursing professor, sued the school for refusing to consider him for a full-time role.

Rinedahl said SPU told him he would not be considered for full-time positions because he is gay, while SPU maintained the school had “religious-based conduct exceptions,” which includes prohibitions on staff and faculty in same-sex marriages. (The lawsuit was settled in a confidential agreement in May 2022.)

Christopher Hanson, a professor in the music department at SPU since 2019, told Sojourners he was diligent in trying to understand the school’s policies when he was interviewing for his position.

“It took some digging, but I found a hiring policy and the statement on human sexuality [on the website],” he said. “I was a little concerned, but not necessarily surprised. And when I came for my in-person interview, I asked some really direct questions about that hiring policy and that statement.”

Hanson said administrators assured him the policy was “a historical document” to show SPU’s denominational affiliation with the Free Methodist Church USA — an evangelical denomination with about 67,000 members in the United States, and with seven affiliated higher education institutions including SPU. Hanson said his interviewers presented a changing institution, and touted SPU’s advertising of numerous external LGBTQ scholarships.

Hanson said he didn’t feel his interviewers were dishonest; LGBTQ acceptance is so common on campus that, until the Rinedahl lawsuit, many felt the policies were a thing of the past. Hanson said he knew any historic Christian institution would have room to improve, but the wide range of assurances helped him feel comfortable taking the job.

“I really felt at peace … that this was gonna be a place that I could work and support my queer students,” Hanson said. “And [a place] that I, myself, could be a queer Christian.”

When Rinedahl’s lawsuit caught attention on campus, Hanson came out as bisexual in support of Rinedahl and other LGBTQ faculty. While Hanson has received support and said his experience has been positive since coming out, he’s aware — and infuriated — that conservative Christians privilege him as “the right kind of queer” because he is not in a same-sex relationship.

In April 2021, in response to the lawsuit, the board of trustees announced it would not change its employee lifestyle policy. A few weeks later, 72 percent of faculty approved a vote of no confidence in the board.

Working groups and protests

In the autumn of 2021, the board hired consultants to “assess the institutional conflict and work on communication between the Board and the SPU community,” according to a SPU faculty senate document. The consultants initiated six working groups, including one to work on LGBTQ issues at the school. Each group included faculty members, staff, administrators, and trustees. Students were not part of the groups due to sensitive and confidential information that may be shared in them, though groups could invite feedback and participation from students, as the LGBTQ group did.

Around that same time, Guillot began serving as a member of the Associated Students of Seattle Pacific (ASSP), the undergraduate student government. Guillot and the rest of ASSP began their term with the express goal of changing the employee policy by the end of the school year so the university would no longer prohibit the hiring of full-time professors in same-sex relationships.

ASSP organized student protests, held forums on campus, and even hosted queer Christian artist Semler to raise support and morale during their fight against the campus policies.

Laur Lugos, the ASSP student body president for the 2021-22 school year, told Sojourners that the student body had meetings with SPU’s leadership, including university’s interim president Pete Menjares, over the school year attempting to make progress on the issue. The theme of those meetings, according to student leaders, was the weaponization of “Christian niceness” and “incompetence” to slow efforts for progress.

“We’ve been in rooms with the [interim] president and he’s told us, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I still have so much to learn. I don’t know what pronouns are,’” Lugos said. “We know that's not accurate. And at this point, that is an excuse, because this president has had time to learn.”

Guillot said that meetings with the board presented hope and frustrations. While the board votes and acts as one, Guillot said individual board members had been supportive of changing policies.

In April 2022, the LGBTQ working group presented its analysis of options and directions for the university to the trustees. But before trustees could vote on changing the school’s policies, sources told Sojourners that trustees Matthew Whitehead and Mark Mason brought and passed a resolution before the Free Methodist Church USA’s Board of Administration declaring that any FMC USA school that “alters their hiring policy to permit the hiring of individuals living a lifestyle inconsistent with the FMC Book of Discipline’s teachings on sexual purity” would be disaffiliated with the denomination. According to ASSP, Whitehead and Mason later abstained from the trustees’ vote to change the policy. ASSP members and faculty told Sojourners that Whitehead and Mason’s actions further cemented a distrust and skepticism that many have about the board’s ability to act in the best interest of the university.

This, according to several sources, was an example of board members’ inappropriate ties to the Free Methodist Church. Hanson said that the board had previously changed its bylaws to keep Whitehead, who is a bishop in the Free Methodist Church, on the board beyond the nine years that board members are supposed to serve.

This threat of disaffiliation also raised the threshold needed for a board vote that would eliminate the restrictive policy. Guillot told Sojourners that while the board only needs a simple majority to change a policy, it would need 75 percent of trustees to approve of disaffiliation. The board declined requests to share any documents related to its bylaws with Sojourners.

According to school spokesperson Tracy Norlen, the FMC USA has provided $324,000 to the school over the past four decades. This amount averages $8,100 per year — 22 percent of a single undergraduate student’s annual tuition in the 2021-22 school year.

In May, SPU’s board of trustees reaffirmed the school’s employee lifestyle policies, offering FMC USA affiliation as the main reason for its decision. Two board members resigned and one declined to renew his membership on the board around the same time as the decision. The board, sources told Sojourners, is losing the members willing to listen and work with the SPU community on finding a path forward.

“The people on the board who want [the restrictive policy] to stay aren’t moving. And those are the people that won’t talk to us,” Guillot said. “The people that don't want the policy to change, they’re the ones who aren’t reaching out and making personal connections.”

The board of trustees, SPU’s senior administrators, and the FMC USA all declined to speak with Sojourners for this article.

Sit-in and lawsuit

After the board’s decision, ASSP began a sit-in in the hallway outside the SPU president’s office. On June 1, at the start of Pride Month, they announced their intention to sue the board of trustees for breach of fiduciary duty, arguing that the board is not acting in the school’s best interests. They launched a GoFundMe to support their legal fees and received a $10,000 anonymous donation on the first day of fundraising.

At the same time ASSP organized an alumni letter asking the SPU board to support a change in the school’s employee policies. Alumni signing the letter pledged to withhold contributions from the school.

“We are ashamed to be associated with the institution of SPU, but we are proud to be associated with SPU students who are refusing to accept inequity, injustice, and exclusion on their campus,” the letter reads.

ASSP and the alumni letter had the same demands for the board: Reveal how each member of the board voted; condemn those who voted to maintain the restrictive policy and the resignation of those members, along with the two who broke board confidentiality when sharing with the Free Methodist Church; and change the employee lifestyle policy to allow the hiring of same-sex married faculty. If those demands were met by July 1, organizers promised to end their sit-in and donate the entire sum of their GoFundMe to the university.

By July 1, organizers had raised over $35,000 via GoFundMe and the alumni petition had more than 580 signatures. In a meeting with students and a subsequent email, board chair Dean Kato told them the board had again reaffirmed their commitment to the hiring policy, writing that “after careful and prayerful deliberation, we believe these longstanding employee expectations are consistent with the University’s mission and Statement of Faith that reflect a traditional view on biblical marriage and sexuality, as an expression of long-held orthodox church teaching.”

In response, the ASSP and other organizers began moving forward with litigation. Guillot told Sojourners that the organizers have retained lawyers and have a group of individuals who will serve as plaintiffs, and that they are “continuing to prepare our breach of fiduciary duty case against the SPU board members who failed to protect the interests of SPU.”

Despite the frustration and oppression that LGBTQ community members face on campus, many told Sojourners that their time at SPU has been enriching — especially their organized resistance.

Laur Lugos said that the weeks-long sit-in of the hallway outside the president’s office felt like “the college experience that a lot of us never got because of COVID-19, and that a lot of us at SPU never got because of homophobia.

“It’s one of the most healing and beautiful spaces that I’ve ever been in, even though it’s right outside of the executive offices that I used to once be afraid of.”