The Seattle Pacific University (SPU) board of trustees voted on May 23 to maintain their homophobic employment policies, to the consternation of many students, staff, and faculty. In response to the decision, queer students, staff, and their allies staged multiple protests including a walkout and a multi-day sit-in outside the university president’s office.
Nearly 3,500 students attend the private evangelical Christian university, which is located in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. Because it is a private religious institution, SPU is able to discriminate against certain groups of people, including showing preference to Christians when hiring and expecting employees to refrain from behavior that violates their biblical views on human sexuality, including “cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
SPU defended the decision, saying that “[w]hile 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.”
In January 2021, nursing adjunct professor Jéaux Rinedahl sued the university, alleging that SPU denied him a full-time assistant professorship because he is gay. Earlier this month, SPU and Rinedahl settled the case out of court, according to The Falcon, the SPU student newspaper.
According to SPU alum and former faculty member Dyana Herron, staff members were told not to contact applicants who had disclosed that they were gay, even if they were fully qualified, the Seattle Times reported.
The board of trustees vote came after a months-long process spearheaded by the university’s LGBTQIA+ Work Group, which sought to reconcile the students, staff and faculty members’ desires for the discriminatory hiring policy to be removed with the university’s desire to be aligned with its “denominational heritage.”
SPU is one of eight universities affiliated with the Free Methodist Church (FMC), an evangelical Christian group with nearly 70,000 members in the United States and more than a million globally. The church does not support same-sex relationships, which it sees as illegitimate.
The working group — composed of staff, faculty, trustees and university administrators — offered recommendations to the board of trustees in April to revise SPU’s statement on human sexuality so that they do not impact hiring or employment practices.
Shortly after the working group presented its recommendations, the FMC board of administration passed a resolution saying that any changes to SPU’s hiring policies would result in disaffiliation with the church. The student government organization Associated Students of Seattle Pacific (ASSP) alleged that members of the SPU board of trustees who are also part of the FMC board of administration breached the trust and confidentiality of the university by going to the church and preempting the university’s May 23 decision.
The ASSP organized an ongoing sit-in outside the SPU president’s office to protest the board of trustees’ decision. Students made signs, artwork and promotional graphics to broadcast their message.
The group has also called on the Washington Attorney General to investigate a potential violation of confidentiality by members of the SPU board of trustees.
Laur Lugos, president of the ASSP, said in a phone interview that the SPU board of trustees did not represent the views of the campus community.
“We’ve been having conversations about the inclusion of LGBTQIA faculty and staff for many, many years now,” Lugos said. “And it’s just that we’re at a point where we understand that the governance structure that is present at our university is unfair. And so we are sitting in because the board of trustees does not represent our university as a whole.”
According to Lugos, the absence of queer faculty members means that queer Christian students don’t have role models who can support them.
“I think that one of the saddest things about being a queer Christian student at a university like this is that we can’t have role models, or we can’t have role models who are safe and able to be their full selves openly around us,” she said.
“And we’re missing these really incredible voices and perspectives and just like people at the table, and it makes us sad, it makes us angry. It’s truly just heartbreaking.”
Lugos added that she doesn’t agree with SPU’s reasoning that continued affiliation with the FMC is worth upholding discriminatory policies.
“Most students, faculty and staff — honestly at this point — have kind of come to the conclusion that if an affiliation with a church is giving us grounds to discriminate against other people, and it’s starting to exclude people from our communities, then it’s time to let go of that affiliation,” Lugos said.
Another student, Emma Wick, said over the phone that although she isn’t a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she wants SPU to be accepting of her friends who are part of the community.
“I have had a lot of connections and family members to Seattle Pacific University,” Wick said. “So it’s really personal for me that this institution is so homophobic.”
Wick, who is a senior, said that the university’s homophobic hiring policies contradict its stated commitment to ecumenism, the idea that all Christians of different denominations can come together and be treated equally on campus.
“I think that the main message of the Bible and Jesus is to love people and to love your neighbor,” Wick said. “And Jesus always sided with the marginalized, not the oppressors. So I don’t think that the board of trustees is acting like Jesus at all right now.”
The ASSP plans to continue the sit-in until their demands to remove the discriminatory hiring policies are met.
The homophobic hiring policies appear to be unpopular with the vast majority of the SPU campus. According to the ASSP, about 80 percent of students, staff and faculty support removing the policies.
In April, 72 percent of faculty voted “no confidence” in the board of trustees over their handling of the issue.
On May 26, SPU administration held a town hall meeting to listen to concerns from the campus community. In the packed gymnasium, four board of trustees members and some of the administration answered questions submitted by students, faculty and staff. The event was live streamed by members of the ASSP.
Matthew Whitehead, who is a FMC bishop and serves on both the SPU and FMC boards, denied that affiliation with the church was the only reason why the board of trustees voted to maintain the homophobic hiring policies.
Whitehead said that he recused himself from the vote due to potential conflict of interest.
Many members of the crowd expressed frustration and opposition to the board’s decision, with some holding signs and interrupting speakers.
At one point, Whitehead said “we know the campus is deeply divided on the issue” to audible jeers and laughter. Many students and staff told the student newspaper The Falcon that answers given by the board lacked substance.
After the town hall, theater education professor Andrew Ryder gave hugs to students who felt hurt by the board’s decision and rhetoric.
“Students are impacted,” he said. “They are shaken and hurt. And we’re just trying to say that [the board] are not SPU, we are SPU and you are SPU.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Jun 1-7, 2022 issue.