State probes evangelical university for refusing to hire gay faculty, staff

Over the past half-century, evangelical universities typically have experienced an ideological divide between their generally more conservative boards of trustees and their largely progressive faculty, staff and student body.

That split is evident at Seattle Pacific University, where faculty, staff and students have filed complaints with the Washington state attorney general because the institution forbids hiring people who don’t adhere to its biblically based stance that sexual activity is sacred and should take place only with a marriage between a man and a woman.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Friday that after “numerous” students, faculty and others filed complaints, he launched a civil rights investigation into the university for refusing to hire “LGBTQ+” faculty and staff.

In May, after the board voted to uphold policies that bar employees from engaging in “same-sex sexual activity,” students and staff staged a sit-in in front of the office of interim president Pete Menjares for about one week. The students called for the removal of the board of trustees.

The university, in an effort to block Ferguson’s investigation, has filed a federal lawsuit.

Ferguson said in a statement that his office “respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions.”

“As a person of faith, I share that view,” he said. “My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.”

Ferguson said his office responded to the complaints with a letter to the university asking four questions and inviting it to provide any additional information that should be considered.

The university’s lawsuit in response to the inquiry, the AG asserted, “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 his office is inviting anyone “who believes they were subject to possible employment discrimination by Seattle Pacific University” to contact his “civil rights team.”

An attorney for SPU, Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit that defends religious liberty, issued a statement to Seattle’s KCPQ-TV. She said the university “is asking a federal court to stop Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson from interfering in the religious decisions of a Christian university seeking to remain true to its faith and mission.”

“Mr. Ferguson recently singled out Seattle Pacific because of its Christian beliefs, demanding information about the school’s religious hiring practices and employees,” Windham said.

The attorney argued that American courts “have been clear that external officials cannot dictate how religious institutions live out their faith commitments.”

“Our laws protect religious universities from unlawful demands by governmental officials,” she said.

During the university’s undergraduate graduation ceremony in June, KCPQ reported, a large number of graduating seniors handed interim president Menjares a gay pride flag as they received their diplomas, with some refusing to shake his hand.