Accusations of denominational meddling and the continuation of anti-LGBTQ hiring and personnel policies have led students and staff to sue members of the Seattle Pacific University board of trustees.
Concerns about racial disparities, declining enrollments and giving also motivated the suit filed in Washington state court last month.
The plaintiffs claim six trustees have protected the institution’s ban on hiring persons in same-sex relationships to comply with the values of the Free Methodist Church, a conservative denomination with historical — but not legal or fiduciary — ties to the university.
“The FMC is a denomination with a small domestic constituency and is openly hostile to the LGBTQ community. The FMC provides little to no direct financial support to the university. The FMC does not own the university,” the plaintiffs state. The defendants “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 suit also accuses the defendants of creating a “rogue board” and in so doing an environment hostile to trustees open to inclusion and diversity.
The defendants’ campaign for control of the board preceded a May 22 vote to retain the existing hiring practices, which led to a protest by faculty and staff.
Those trustees “turned the board vote into a farce” which resulted “in the resignation of half of the board, including several Black trustees and other trustees of color” after the vote, the plaintiffs claim.
The suit also claims those controlling the university are motivated by race.
“As one queer, Black staff member told the (board of trustees) shortly before resigning from their position this year, the rogue board, in upholding homophobia, are also ‘upholding a system of whiteness,’” the defendants allege. “Indeed, all the Black trustees, including the chair of the (board), would have voted against the rogue board and, along with their allies on the board, would have ended SPU’s illegal, discriminatory employment policy.”
The plaintiffs add that trustees in control of the board are associated with “extremist and supremacist organizations that … perpetuate a form of white Christian supremacy that harms SPU’s LGBTQ students and employees and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students and employees.”
The suit identifies Alliance Defending Freedom as one of those groups, adding that it is “designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The state also has taken note of the university’s discriminatory hiring practices when, in July, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced an investigation into the university’s policies toward LGBTQ persons after receiving numerous complaints from faculty and staff.
“My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination. That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation,” he said.
In response, the university has sued Ferguson’s office in federal court claiming its hiring policies are its prerogative as a religious institution.
“It is our contention that the attorney general’s office has targeted the university because of our Christian beliefs, which is why we are asking the court to ensure we can protect our religious identity,” trustee Pete Menjares, interim SPU president and a defendant in the student-staff lawsuit, said in an open letter to the university community.
The attorney general denied that claim in a news release. “My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions. As a person of faith, I share that view.”
The student and staff lawsuit against Seattle Pacific also does not dispute the authenticity of the trustees’ beliefs or those of the Free Methodist Church: “This case is not about whether defendants’ religious beliefs are right or wrong. This case is about accountability.”
Part of that accountability should be to the student body and staff at Seattle Pacific — who together represent more than 50 denominations, the plaintiffs say. “Defendants, trustees of an ecumenical and inclusive educational institution, must be held accountable for placing their personal religious beliefs above their fiduciary duties to SPU and its people.”
Instead, the defendants have “inflicted trauma on their fellow trustees and the entire campus. Defendants chose this path in order to defend a discriminatory hiring policy that undermined, and has torn apart, the heart and soul of SPU.”
The suit asks the court to remove the defendants from the board and appoint a receiver to oversee the election of their replacements. Plaintiffs also demand an accounting of finances and real estate holdings, as well as economic damages and reimbursement for attorney fees.
The plaintiffs included a lament in their filing: “SPU, until recently, made significant strides toward becoming known as an inclusive, ecumenical, academically rigorous, and social-justice oriented Christian institution of higher education. But SPU has now been co-opted by powerful men attempting to reverse course by morphing SPU into an exclusionary institution that places sectarianism above inclusivity and Christian hospitality.”
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