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Seattle Pacific University's lawsuit dismissed as discrimination investigation continues

Attorney General Bob Ferguson's office is investigating whether SPU's policy constitutes illegal discrimination.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A federal judge has dismissed Seattle Pacific University's (SPU) lawsuit over the Washington Attorney General's inquiry into the school's hiring practices.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson confirmed his office was investigating SPU over whether a policy prohibiting faculty and staff from engaging in same-sex sexual activity constitutes illegal discrimination.

The public confirmation came after SPU filed a lawsuit with religious liberty nonprofit Becket Law in July, believing the policy was protected under the First Amendment.

"The United States Supreme Court has long held that the first amendment protects religious organizations' ability to decide for themselves what they believe and how they will carry that out," Daniel Benson, an attorney for Becket Law told KING 5 in July. "The university is now in federal court hoping to protect its ability to live out its faith and create a community of vibrant Christian faith in accordance with its religious beliefs."

In August, Ferguson filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, asking the court to halt the university's attempt to stop the investigation by his office. Judge Robert Bryan granted that motion Wednesday, ruling that SPU is asking for a change in state law that a federal court cannot grant. Bryan's ruling says any First Amendment arguments by SPU should be raised in state court.

The investigation began after students and staff at SPU staged a sit-in and a walkout, as well as called for the removal of the university's board of trustees after they voted to uphold the policy in question.

Student organizer Chloe Guillot spoke to KING 5 in July and said the AG's investigation was welcomed by those hoping to see the policy changed.

"The initial reaction to the Washington AG's investigation was definitely excitement. We had done the whole campaign to reach out to the Attorney General in May and we hadn't heard anything back, so I think in our minds we had kind of filed that back as something we tried and hadn't worked," Guillot said. "So to see there was an investigation going on in that time is really encouraging because it also means that somebody beyond just our group of students and faculty has eyes on this issue and sees the importance of it."

In September, a group of students, faculty and staff at the university sued leaders of the board of trustees for refusing to change the policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time jobs at SPU. The 16 plaintiffs say the trustees’ stance 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 six defendants – including the university’s interim president, Pete Menjares – be removed from their positions.

One catalyst of the division over the policy on campus was a 2021 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 is gay. 

Although that case was settled out of court, it intensified criticism of the policy.

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.

Both Becket Law and Menjares sent statements to KING 5 in response to the statement.

“Seattle Pacific will continue to serve its students and community in accordance with its religious mission. We are disappointed with today’s procedural ruling, however, it did not touch on the larger issue regarding Seattle Pacific’s First Amendment rights. The court did not rule on the attorney general’s unlawful investigation. We will continue to defend SPU’s right to express its faith in all aspects of university life,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law said.

“We remain committed to serving our students and campus community in a way that honors our Christian faith and mission. The government should not interfere with our ability to operate out of our sincerely held religious beliefs. We are disappointed with today’s ruling, but the court did not decide whether the state can investigate our university’s internal affairs. We will continue to defend ourselves from unlawful interference with our Christian mission,” said Menjares.

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