Seattle Pacific University (SPU) filed a federal lawsuit on July 28 attempting to stop a state investigation into the university’s hiring practices, which effectively preclude people in same-sex sexual relationships from attaining staff or faculty positions.
The investigation was prompted by complaints from students who organized a protest against a decision by the SPU Board of Trustees in May to maintain a policy allowing them to deny applicants whose lifestyles violate the school’s religious precepts. That means that staff and faculty must “abide by certain lifestyle expectations,” according to the lawsuit, which preclude same-sex sexual activity, cohabitation or sex before marriage. Marriage is defined as between one man and one woman.
“My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a statement. “That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”
In its lawsuit, SPU argues that it has a right to choose faculty and staff who share the institution’s religious beliefs and that any attempts by Ferguson to interfere are a violation of the religious organization’s First Amendment rights.
“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 lawsuit reads. “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 lawsuit also attempts to shut down the state’s efforts to investigate the matter. Ferguson’s office sent a letter on June 8 requesting documentation of SPU’s hiring policies; asking the school to describe instances in which those policies have been in applied in hiring, firing or disciplinary decisions; asking for complaints from individuals affected by the policies; and requesting that the school hand over job descriptions, hiring criteria and eligibility requirements for the university’s faculty, staff and administrator positions.
Included was a request for contact information for individuals impacted by the hiring and promotion policies, as well as a demand to preserve documents that could be associated with the investigation.
To turn over that detailed information would cause “irreparable harm” to the university, according to the lawsuit.
The fact that the university filed a lawsuit at all is an attempt to obstruct a lawful investigation, Ferguson said.
“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 said.
This is not the first time that a case about the hiring practices of religious organizations in Washington — even Seattle, specifically — has risen to the federal level. The Supreme Court chose not to hear a case involving a bisexual attorney who was rejected from a staff position at the Union Gospel Mission homeless shelter over his sexuality, in part because some legal questions remained before state courts. Justices did, however, leave the door open for a future case of a similar nature.
“But the day may soon come when we must decide whether the autonomy guaranteed by the First Amendment protects religious organizations’ freedom to hire co-religionists without state or judicial interference,” the denial reads.
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the Aug. 3-9, 2022 issue.