Divisions over LGBTQ-related policies have flared recently at several religious colleges in the United States. On Monday, there was a dramatic new turn at one of the most rancorous battlegrounds – Seattle Pacific University.
A group of students, faculty and staff at the Christian university sued leaders of the board of trustees for refusing to scrap an employment policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time jobs at SPU. The 16 plaintiffs say the trustees’ stance – widely opposed on campus – is a breach of their fiduciary duties that threatens to harm SPU’s reputation, worsen enrollment difficulties and possibly jeopardize its future.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington State Superior Court, requests that the defendants – including the university’s interim president, Pete Menjares – be removed from their positions. It asks that economic damages, in an amount to be determined at a jury trial, be paid to anyone harmed by the LGBTQ hiring policy.
"This case is about six men who act as if they, and the educational institution they are charged to protect, are above the law," the lawsuit says. "While these men are powerful, they are not above the law... They must be held to account for their illegal and reckless conduct."
In addition to Menjares, the defendants are board chair Dean Kato; trustees Matthew Whitehead, Mark Mason and Mike Quinn, and former trustee Michael McKee. Whitehead and Mason are leaders of the Free Methodist Church, a denomination whose teachings do not recognize same-sex marriage and which founded SPU in 1891.
There was no immediate response to the lawsuit from SPU, though its communications office acknowledged receiving a query from The Associated Press and said a reply was in the works.
SPU’s LGBTQ-related employment policy has been a source of bitter division on the campus over the past two years. One catalyst was a lawsuit filed against SPU in January 2021 by Jeaux Rinedahl, an adjunct professor who alleged he was denied a full-time, tenured position because he was gay.
That lawsuit eventually was settled out of court, but it intensified criticism of the hiring. Through surveys and petitions, it's clear that large majorities of the faculty and student body oppose the policy, yet a majority of the trustees reaffirmed it in May – triggering resignations by other trustees and protests by students that included a prolonged sit-in at the school’s administrative offices.
At SPU’s graduation on June 12, dozens of students protested by handing gay-pride flags to Menjares, rather than shake his hand, as they received diplomas.
Kato, the trustees’ chair, responded to the protests with a firm defense of the hiring policy.
"We acknowledge there is disagreement among people of faith on the topic of sexuality and identity," Kato’s wrote to student activists. "But 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."
In June, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson notified SPU that his office was investigating "possible discriminatory employment policies and practices" at the school. SPU was asked to provide details on hiring and firing policies related to individuals’ sexual orientation and involvement in a same-sex marriage or relationship.
On July 27, SPU filed a federal court lawsuit against Ferguson, contending that his investigation violated the university’s right to religious freedom.
"Seattle Pacific has asked a federal district court to step in and protect its freedom to choose employees on the basis of religion, free from government interference or intimidation," the school said in a statement.
Ferguson responded two days later, declaring that his office "respects the religious views of all Washingtonians" but chiding SPU for resorting to litigation.
"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.
Ferguson said his office intervened after receiving numerous complaints from SPU faculty and students. Their basic concern, he said, was that the university — located in one of the country's most liberal cities — "discriminates against faculty and staff on the basis of sexual orientation," which is prohibited by state law.
The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit against the trustees include six SPU students and 10 members of the faculty or staff.
Among them is Chloe Guillot, who graduated from SPU earlier this year and now – despite her differences with the trustees – attends the university’s seminary.
"I’m stubborn -- there’s a part of me that refuses to give up," she said, "I love professors I’ve had."
"One thing that’s been hard to communicate to the public is how the actions of the board are so different from the rest of the university," Guillot said. "The lawsuit goes through the ways these board members have orchestrated a coup that contradicts everything the university stands for."
Among the faculty plaintiffs is Lynette Bikos, a professor of clinical psychology. She described the board’s behavior as "nefarious" -- jeopardizing SPU’s future and undermining its longstanding commitment to diversity.
She cited the possibility of a 25% reduction in faculty positions and said consultants had warned professors that SPU might have only a few more years of financial viability unless circumstances change.
The school's total enrollment last fall was 3,443, down from 4,175 in 2015.
Bikos said she’s deeply committed to fighting the employment policy, yet finds the effort exhausting.
"Never in my life did I think I’d be part of a lawsuit," she said. "That’s not who I am."
Paul Southwick, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the university likely would seek dismissal of the lawsuit but predicted the court would allow a jury trial to proceed. He declined to predict an ultimate outcome, but said that under state law, Washington's attorney general has the right to remove university trustees under certain circumstances.
Tensions over LGBTQ-related policies have flared recently at other religious universities in the U.S.
At Brigham Young – run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- LGBTQ students and their allies at the Provo, Utah, school have been protesting rules that forbid same-sex romantic partnerships or physical displays of affection.
Yeshiva University – based in New York City – has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a state court order mandating that the Orthodox Jewish school recognize an LGBTQ student group – the YU Pride Alliance – as an official campus club. On Friday, the Supreme Court granted Yeshiva’s request for the time being, and signaled it may consider the case more fully.