Students and staff at a private Christian university are suing members of the school’s board of trustees over its anti-LGBTQ hiring policy.
In May, Seattle Pacific University’s (SPU) board of trustees declined to change the school’s “Employee Lifestyle Expectations,” which bar employees from engaging in “sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards.” According to the policy, that includes any same-sex romantic or sexual activity.
The decision touched off a series of protests that included a weeks-long sit-in and students handing rainbow flags to SPU interim President Pete Menjares in exchange for their diplomas at the school’s graduation ceremony.
Now, six SPU students and 10 faculty and staff members are suing Menjares and five other trustees over their stance on the school’s hiring policy. According to the lawsuit, the hiring policy represents a breach of the defendants’ fiduciary duties to the school, threatening SPU’s reputation and worsening its declining enrollment. It also alleges that the six trustees use their positions to “advance the interests of a religious denomination at the expense of the students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university.”
“This case is about six men who act as if they, and the educational institution they are charged to protect, are above the law,” according to the lawsuit. “While these men are powerful, they are not above the law… They must be held to account for their illegal and reckless conduct.”
A 2021 lawsuit brought by an SPU professor claiming the school had denied him tenure because he is gay was settled out of court. SPU’s faculty senate subsequently passed a vote of no confidence in the school’s board of trustees, which had upheld the anti-gay policy. In early June, the faculty senate passed a resolution in support of changing the policy to allow same-sex sexual activity within the context of marriage.
“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,” recent SPU graduate Chloe Guillot, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The lawsuit goes through the ways these board members have orchestrated a coup that contradicts everything the university stands for.”
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced in July that his office was investigating “possible discriminatory employment policies and practices” at SPU. “Numerous Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others reached out to my office to file complaints or otherwise express deep concern that the University administration’s policies illegally violate Washingtonians’ civil rights,” Ferguson said in a press release.
SPU in turn filed a federal lawsuit against Ferguson, claiming the investigation violates the university’s religious freedoms.
“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,” SPU said in a statement.