Under Investigation for Discrimination, Seattle Pacific University Sues | Sojourners

Under Investigation for Discrimination, Seattle Pacific University Sues

A metal archway says "Seattle Pacific University" in front of trees with yellow leaves.
Courtesy of Seattle Pacific University.

Seattle Pacific University announced on July 28 that it is suing Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, after the attorney general opened an investigation into whether SPU was violating the state’s anti-discrimination laws. SPU, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, contends that Ferguson’s investigation is a violation of the school’s religious freedom.

On June 8, Ferguson’s office sent a letter to SPU, alerting the school of its investigation into “possible discriminatory employment policies and practices” at the school. The letter requested the school to send, by July 8, its employment policy documents related to sexual orientation and same-sex marriages or relationships, as well as any complaints about the policies, relevant job descriptions, and other documents that show how the employment policy is implemented.

On July 27, SPU filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington against the attorney general. The school “believes the attorney general’s office has targeted the university because of its Christian beliefs and is asking the federal court to ensure it can maintain its religious identity,” according to a statement posted on the school’s website. The school wrote that it is “defending its right to hire Christian faculty and staff.”

For some members of the SPU community, the university’s assertion that is in court to defend its right to hire exclusively Christian faculty and staff was upsetting: SPU is an ecumenical Christian university and requires faculty to be Christian, but it does not require its faculty to be affiliated with a particular denomination. Over the past year and a half, an overwhelming majority of SPU’s student body, staff, and faculty have worked to change the school’s policy that prohibits full-time employment of anyone in same-sex relationships.

However, as Kevin Neuhouser, a sociology professor at SPU, pointed out, no one had asked the school to hire staff that wasn’t Christian.

“No one – absolutely no one – has asked or is asking SPU to give up its right to exclusively hire Christians,” Neuhouser wrote in an email to the university’s interim president, Pete Menjares, that Neuhouser shared with Sojourners. “The only thing that is being asked of SPU is that we stop discriminating against queer Christians.” [sic]

Lori Windham is a senior counsel at Becket, a nonprofit law firm focused on free expression of faith, that is representing the university. Sojourners asked Windham whether SPU believes that people in same-sex relationships are not Christian. Windham declined to answer the question directly, writing in an email that “SPU welcomes and encourages thoughtful dialogue and robust academic inquiry among students, faculty and staff – including civil discussions about human sexuality and marriage between the family of believers who are, with God’s help and grace, able to hold the tension of deep disagreement within the strong bounds of a common faith.”

Windham added that SPU “leadership discerned the lawsuit was both necessary and imperative to protect the University’s religious identity.”

Windham said the school communicated with the attorney general’s office before filing their suit, but that the attorney general’s office would not narrow the scope of their investigation or answer questions about “the constitutional problems with the investigation,” according to Windham.

In a July 29 statement acknowledging the investigation, Ferguson said that his office “respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions.”

“In response to our inquiry, Seattle Pacific University filed a federal lawsuit,” the statement reads. “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’s office declined to answer questions from Sojourners, pointing to its public statement.

Cambria Judd Babbitt, a 2022 graduate from SPU involved in efforts to sue SPU’s board of trustees for a breach of fiduciary duty, told Sojourners that she and other alumni had reached out to the attorney general’s office in June. Ferguson’s office said they were looking into the matter but did not tell them anything further.

“[The news of the lawsuit] was actually really shocking to us,” Babbitt said. “At the same time, though, [it was] really encouraging to know that there is a larger legal entity that is trying to hold the school accountable and make sure they’re following legal principles for employment.”

Babbitt said the school’s claim of religious persecution was hard to juxtapose with their unwillingness to hire Christians in same-sex relationships.

“SPU is an ecumenical institution, which means that people from all walks of Christian faith are welcome,” Babbitt said. “But at the same time, they’re discriminating against people of their own religious faith: Christians who happen to interpret the Bible in a way that’s affirming and are in same-sex relationships.”

Neuhouser said he was concerned about the school spending “thousands of dollars” on a lawsuit while “the administration is contemplating drastic budget and workforce cuts to balance our books,” according to his email.

Windham said Becket is representing SPU free of charge but declined to answer how much the school is spending to retain Ellis, Li & McKinstry, a Seattle law firm that is also representing the school, or how much the suit is costing the school broadly.

For Neuhouser, the lawsuit is another example of the school’s leadership failing to represent the interests of the broader community.

“I have lost hope in the Board of Trustees to defend our Christian identity; I have lost faith in the SPU administration to defend our Christian identity,” Neuhouser wrote. “My only hope is that Attorney General Bob Ferguson will use the law to get SPU to do what we should voluntarily do in order to be faithful to the God who is gracious, generous, and forgiving to us far beyond anything we deserve…if only we could be imitators of the God we claim to love.”