Aug 1, 2022 - News

University sues AG over probe into anti-gay policies

A man with short brown hair and glasses in a dark suit speaks at a podium with a crowd in the background.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks during a pro-choice rally in Seattle, Washington on May 3. Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP

Festering complaints over a Seattle-based Christian university's policy that bars employees from engaging in "same-sex sexual activity" has exploded into a First Amendment battle in federal court.

Driving the news: After learning Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson was investigating complaints of its so-called "employee lifestyle expectations" and hiring practices, Seattle Pacific University proactively sued the Democratic AG last week.

Details: In a federal lawsuit filed last Thursday, SPU defended its policy of barring hiring of LGBTQ job applicants, contending that as a private institution holding "traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality, in alignment with the Free Methodist Church," the school can legally require its staff and faculty to live "according to the University's teachings on marriage."

  • The suit claims that by opening a probe of its employee rules and hiring practices, Ferguson has violated SPU's Constitutional guarantees to religious freedom and other forms of protected expression.

What they're saying: "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," the suit states.

  • "He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University. But governmental attempts to probe the mind of a religious institution are a blatant form of entanglement barred by both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment."

The other side: Ferguson's office, in a statement early Friday, confirmed it launched an investigation based on numerous complaints from students and staff.

  • "My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination," the statement said. "That's our job — we uphold Washington's law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation."
  • The statement added that the AG's office sent — but did not publicize — a letter to the university in June asking for more records and information about its policies and practices.
  • SPU responded by suing, which "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 statement said.

Background: SPU's anti-gay policies gained national attention last spring when students and staff at the small university on the north side of Queen Anne Hill protested a Board of Trustees' vote to retain its "employee lifestyle expectations" policy.

  • During weeks-long sit-ins at SPU's administration building, protesters called for the removal of board members.
  • Students ultimately ended the sit-ins amid plans to sue the board, and have since raised more than $38,000 via a GoFundMe campaign to cover legal expenses.

Zoom out: SPU's lawsuit is the latest of several high-profile religious-based civil rights cases in Washington, including one recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • The high court ruled 6-3 in June that a Bremerton High football coach had a right to pray openly with players on the school's field.
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