Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian school, is suing the attorney general of Washington State, saying his investigation into the university's anti-LGBTQ+ hiring practices is a violation of religious freedom.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson "is wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with," the university says in a complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Seattle Pacific is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, a conservative denomination that is separate from the United Methodist Church. The university will not employ people who are in same-sex marriages and expects employees to adhere to its policy that sex is reserved exclusively for the marriage of a man and a woman, The Seattle Times reports.
The university affirmed that policy in May, and officials have said it would lose its affiliation with the Free Methodist Church if it rescinded the policy. LGBTQ-supportive students responded by staging a sit-in outside the president's office and handing him miniature Pride flags at the graduation ceremony in June. Also, Jeaux Rinedahl, an adjunct nursing professor, sued SPU in 2021, saying it denied him a tenured position because he's gay. The case has been settled out of court.
Ferguson heard many complaints about the SPU employment policy, so he sent the school a letter in June saying it may violate the state's LGBTQ-inclusive antidiscrimination law. He asked for much information on how the policy is applied, including every instance when it came into play and the names and contact information of the people affected, the Times reports.
This information is "sensitive and personal," university officials say in the lawsuit. "The probe is not limited to a single dispute or employee, but seeks to regulate and surveil a religious school's relationships with all its employees and leaders," the complaint says. "Nothing in the letter places any constitutional limitation on the probe, including the probe of ministerial employees and administrators, nor even acknowledges the principle of religious autonomy for religious institutions." The investigation violates the university's right to religious freedom as laid out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the suit alleges.
Fergus released a statement Friday in response to the suit. The filing "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," he said, according to the Times.
Under federal law, religious institutions have the right to favor members of their own faith in employment decisions. The "ministerial exception" in application of nondiscrimination law allows for broader leeway to discriminate on certain factors, such as sexual orientation and gender identity, when hiring ministers or other people whose duties include instruction on religion.