Washington state’s attorney general is violating the religious freedoms of a Seattle Christian university by seeking to force it to hire individuals who disagree with the school’s statement on Scripture and sexuality, the university alleges in a new federal lawsuit.
At issue is a June 8 letter sent by the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson to Seattle Pacific University asking it to address complaints that its “employment policies and practices” may violate state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The letter requested documents from the university and said the attorney general’s office was opening an inquiry.
Seattle Pacific University is aligned with the Free Methodist Church and “holds to traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality,” according to the lawsuit. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Ellis, Li and McKinstry are representing the university.
Free Methodists affirm the biblical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, the lawsuit says.
“The attorney general is wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with,” the lawsuit says. “He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University.”
Citing a recent Supreme Court opinion, the lawsuit asserts that “governmental attempts to probe the mind of a religious institution are a blatant form of entanglement barred by both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit references the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey Berru, in which the justices ruled that “[s]tate interference … obviously violate[s] the free exercise of religion,” and such “attempt[s] by [the] government to dictate or even to influence [religious] matters ... constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion.” In that decision, the Supreme Court ruled that two Catholic schools could hire and fire employees without being governed by anti-discrimination laws.
“The U.S. Constitution recognizes and protects the right of Seattle Pacific University to decide matters of faith and doctrine, to hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and to select and retain ministers free from government interference,” the lawsuit says.
The university, in a statement, said it requires its faculty and staff to be Christian, “to affirm the University’s statement of faith, and to abide by its lifestyle expectations,” which together “shape the vision and mission of the institution as a Free Methodist Church-affiliated university.”
“In the spirit of SPU’s mission focus, the University welcomes students from all faith backgrounds,” the university statement said.
“For over 130 years, our university has been guided by our Christian mission and purpose, and we’re asking to continue that tradition,” said Pete Menjares, interim president of the university. “The faith commitment of our faculty and staff is an essential foundation to our identity as a Christian university.”
The lawsuit is Seattle Pacific v. Ferguson.
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.