A group of students, faculty and staff at Seattle Pacific University are suing the Christian college for refusing to hire full-time employees in same-sex relationships.
The lawsuit, filed on Sept. 12, accuses six men of creating a “rogue” Board of Trustees to prohibit employing LGBTQ people in same-sex relationships. It says those men prioritized their religious beliefs over their responsibilities to the school. The plaintiffs are asking for their dismissals, as well as economic damages for those harmed by the discriminatory policy.
The defendants in the case are all current or former members of the university’s Board of Trustees: Matthew Whitehead, Mark Mason, Dean Kato, Michael McKee, Mike Quinn, and Pete Menjares, the latter of who is currently serving as the university’s interim president.
A Christian school founded by the Free Methodist Church, SPU forbids its full-time employees from engaging in same-sex relationships, a policy the lawsuit describes as “loathed by the SPU community.”
The lawsuit, filed by 16 students, graduates, faculty and staff, acknowledges the sincerity of the defendants’ religious beliefs, but argues they prioritized those beliefs “above their fiduciary duties to SPU and its people.”
“They are powerful men who use their positions, as trustees of Seattle Pacific University, to advance the interests of a religious denomination at the expense of the students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit also claims the school, which is incorporated under a law known as the Washington Nonprofit Corporation Act, is not a religious corporation as defined by the law.
SPU’s same-sex relationship policy has faced legal threats all summer. At the beginning of June, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter to SPU asking for more information about how policies around same-sex relationships had affected hirings, firings, promotions and disciplinary actions. In July, SPU filed a complaint claiming Ferguson was interfering with their religious beliefs.
While the university’s “employee lifestyle expectations” aren’t new, the Board of Trustees just announced in May that it deliberated the requirements before deciding to maintain them.
That decision set off numerous protests. According to CNN, SPU graduates this June offered the interim president, Menjares, Pride flags when he gave them their diplomas. For more than a month, student activists staged a sit-in demanding the removal of the Board, camping outside the president’s office, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. They ended the sit-in before moving to take legal action.
In a press release about the lawsuit, plaintiff Reena Sidhu accused the university of hypocrisy.
“SPU happily accepts queer students who give them tuition money, but when we would like to become a staff member, then SPU is quick to bring in these discriminatory hiring policies and conveniently use the Bible to call us sinful,” they said. “When SPU recruited me, I was not informed that my identity is only tolerable when the university is still getting my money.”
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