Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has asked an evangelical university in Seattle to turn over a wide range of documents relating to LGBTQ hiring and alleged discrimination.
But Seattle Pacific University has filed a federal lawsuit to block the probe, which its attorneys contend is blunted by the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) — the same law Mr. Ferguson has cited to initiate the inquiry.
The attorney general’s action caps 18 months of controversy over LGBTQ employment at Seattle Pacific, which is associated with the Free Methodist Church USA.
The private university requires faculty and staff to affirm a “lifestyle expectations” statement that says “employees are expected to refrain from sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University’s understanding of Biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
Mr. Ferguson, a Democrat, said Friday in a statement that he’s responding to complaints from “numerous Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others” about the hiring policy.
Earlier this year, a number of Seattle Pacific students staged a sit-in to persuade the school’s trustees to drop the requirement, but the trustees refused to do so.
After receiving a letter from the attorney general’s office, Seattle Pacific sued in federal court to block the investigation. The Becket Fund, a D.C.-based public interest law firm, is representing the school along with Seattle law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry.
“In retaliation for Seattle Pacific’s religious speech and exercise, the attorney general has launched a probe seeking information on internal religious matters and decisions, detailed review of religious hiring practices, communications with ministerial employees, and even the selection of the University’s president, senior leadership, and board of trustees,” the school alleges in a complaint filed in the Tacoma division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
The suit contends that WLAD specifically excludes “any educational facility” run by “any religious or sectarian organization not organized for private profit” from its provisions.
In emails to The Washington Times, Ferguson spokeswoman Brionna Aho said the state’s Supreme Court says the exemption applies only if employees are “ministers,” a claim that Seattle Pacific’s lawyers dispute. She cited a 2021 case involving a Christian rescue mission in Seattle, in which the exemption was not granted.
Ms. Aho said the Seattle Pacific case is “not different” despite the specific educational institution exemption.
In his statement, Mr. Ferguson said his office “did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.” He said the school “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.”
Legal scholar Robin Fretwell Wilson, who has written extensively on conflicts between gay rights and religious liberty, told The Times that Seattle Pacific’s exemption argument presents a challenge for the attorney general.
The state Legislature “deliberately created this idea of a pluralist island in the middle of the sea. They did it by law; they literally created it,” said Ms. Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs for the University of Illinois System.
Amanda Staggenborg, spokeswoman for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities — of which Seattle Pacific is a member — said in a statement that the council “supports its member institutions in living out their mission. It is important that state and federal authorities support and protect the religious mission of a religious institution.”
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