Divisions over LGBTQ-related policies have erupted recently at several religious colleges in the United States. On Monday, there was a dramatic new twist on one of the most resentful battlegrounds – Seattle’s University of the Pacific.
A group of Christian university students, faculty and staff have sued board leaders for refusing to drop an employment policy barring people in same-sex relationships from accessing full-time jobs at SPU. The 16 plaintiffs say the trustees’ position — widely opposed on campus — is a breach of their fiduciary duties that threatens to damage SPU’s reputation, worsen enrollment difficulties and possibly jeopardize its future.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington State Superior Court, asks that the defendants — including the university’s acting president, Pete Menjares — be removed from office. He is asking for economic damages, in an amount to be determined in a jury trial, to be paid to anyone harmed by the LGBTQ hiring policy.
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“This case concerns six men who act as if they and the educational institution they are charged with protecting are above the law,” the lawsuit states. “Although these men are powerful, they are not above the law… They must be held accountable for their unlawful and reckless conduct.”
In addition to Menjares, the defendants are board chairman Dean Kato; directors Matthew Whitehead, Mark Mason and Mike Quinn, and former director Michael McKee. Whitehead and Mason are leaders of the Free Methodist Church, a denomination whose teachings do not recognize same-sex marriage and which founded the SPU in 1891.
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There was no immediate response to SPU’s lawsuit, although its communications office acknowledged receiving a query from The Associated Press and said a response was in preparation.
SPU’s LGBTQ-related employment policy has been a bitter source of division on campus for the past two years. One of the catalysts was a lawsuit filed against SPU in January 2021 by Jeaux Rinedahl, an adjunct professor who alleged he had been denied a permanent full-time position because he was gay.
That lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but it intensified criticism over the hiring. Through polls and petitions, it’s clear that large majorities of the faculty and student body oppose the policy, but a majority of trustees reaffirmed it in May – triggering resignations from other trustees and student protests that included a prolonged school sit-in. administrative offices.
At SPU’s June 12 graduation, dozens of students protested by handing gay pride flags to Menjares, rather than shaking his hand, as they received diplomas.
Kato, the chairman of the trustees, responded to the protests with a strong defense of the hiring policy.
“We recognize that there is disagreement among believers on the subject of sexuality and identity,” Kato’s wrote to student activists. “But after careful and prayerful deliberation, we believe these longstanding employee expectations are consistent with the University’s mission and statement of faith that reflect a traditional view of biblical marriage and sexuality.”
In June, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson informed the SPU that his office was investigating “possible discriminatory employment policies and practices” at the school. SPU was asked to provide details on hiring and firing policies related to individuals’ sexual orientation and involvement in a marriage or same-sex relationship.
On July 27, SPU filed a lawsuit in federal court against Ferguson, claiming that his investigation violated the university’s right to religious freedom.
“Seattle Pacific has asked a federal district court to intervene and protect its freedom to choose employees on the basis of religion, without government interference or intimidation,” the school said in a statement.
Ferguson responded two days later, saying his office “respects the religious views of all Washingtonians,” but slamming SPU for resorting to lawsuits.
“The lawsuit demonstrates that the University believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is immune from answering fundamental questions from my office regarding the University’s compliance with the law. of the state,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said his office stepped in after receiving numerous complaints from SPU faculty and students. Their main concern, he said, was that the university – located in one of the most liberal cities in the country – “discriminates against faculty and staff on the basis of sexual orientation”, which is prohibited by state law.
The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit against the administrators include six SPU students and 10 faculty or staff members.
Among them is Chloe Guillot, who graduated from SPU earlier this year and who now – despite her differences with administrators – attends the university’s seminary.
“I’m stubborn – there’s a part of me that refuses to give up,” she said, “I love the teachers I’ve had.”
“One thing that has been difficult to communicate to the public is how the board’s actions are so different from the rest of the university,” Guillot said. “The trial goes through how these board members orchestrated a coup that contradicts everything the university stands for.”
Among the faculty plaintiffs is Lynette Bikos, professor of clinical psychology. She described the board’s behavior as “infamous” – jeopardizing SPU’s future and undermining its longstanding commitment to diversity.
She raised the possibility of a 25% reduction in faculty positions and said consultants had warned faculty that SPU may only have a few more years of financial viability left unless circumstances change.
Total school enrollment last fall was 3,443, up from 4,175 in 2015.
Bikos said she was deeply committed to fighting the jobs policy, but found the effort exhausting.
“Never in my life did I think I would be part of a trial,” she said. “It’s not who I am.”
Paul Southwick, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the university would likely seek a dismissal of the lawsuit, but predicted the court would allow a jury trial. He declined to predict an end result, but said that under state law, the Washington attorney general has the right to remove university trustees under certain circumstances.
Tensions over LGBTQ-related policies have recently erupted at other religious universities in the United States
At Brigham Young — led by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — LGBTQ students and their allies at the school in Provo, Utah, protested rules that prohibit romantic partnerships between people of same sex or physical displays of affection.
Yeshiva University – based in New York – has asked the US Supreme Court to block a state court order requiring the Orthodox Jewish school to recognize a group of LGBTQ students – the YU Pride Alliance – as an official university club. On Friday, the Supreme Court granted Yeshiva’s request for the time being and signaled that it could review the case further.
David Crary, National AP Writer