Washington state Attorney General (AG) Bob Ferguson, who became well known for hounding Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman into retirement for her biblical beliefs about marriage, has now set his sights on Seattle Pacific University (SPU), a Christian educational institution affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.
In June, Ferguson’s office sent a letter to SPU saying, “I am writing to inform you that the [Attorney General’s Office] is opening an inquiry to determine whether the University is meeting its obligations under state law.
“Specifically, we have learned of information that suggests that the University may utilize employment policies and practices that permit or require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including by prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity.”
Wait. That’s not controversial at all. And it shouldn’t be.
A Christian university that requires its faculty to abide by principles of the Christian faith is exactly what you should expect from such an institution. There are plenty of secular colleges and universities to work at or attend if you’re not particularly fond of the Bible.
SPU has a statement of faith that includes human sexuality and the school requires its faculty and staff to both affirm it and abide by it.
The school’s right to do so is protected by the religion clauses of the First Amendment, according to Lori Windham, an attorney with the Becket Fund, which represents the school in a federal lawsuit seeking to put an end to the attorney general’s investigation.
“At the heart of the lawsuit is religious autonomy, Windham, told World. “The Supreme Court has guaranteed that right several times. It has said the First Amendment protects churches and religious groups’ right to decide what they believe and who should lead them.”
The lawsuit explains the expectations that SPU has for its employees.
“As part of its religious commitment, Seattle Pacific expects its faculty, staff and leadership to agree with the University’s statement of faith and to live out that faith as a model for others, including by living according to the University’s religious teachings on marriage,” the Complaint states. “Seattle Pacific relies on its faculty, staff, and leadership to provide a Christian higher education by integrating faith and learning.”
The AG’s letter clearly implies that SPU cannot make adverse employment decisions based on biblical standards regarding human sexuality, including refusing to hire someone or terminating them for being in a same-sex relationship or “marriage” or engaging in homosexual sex. The AG is demanding all of SPU’s records for any employee possibly affected by such adverse employment decisions since 2017.
If SPU were to change its employment policies with regard to sexual orientation, the consequences would be immediate.
“If the University changed its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, the University would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church,” the lawsuit states. “The University would no longer be a denominational institution. Disaffiliation would occur whether the University made this change voluntarily or under compulsion of law. This would result in the loss of a religious affiliation that has existed for over 130 years.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has been clear in recent years that employment decisions regarding “ministers” of a religious institution – those who propagate the faith or instill it in students – are beyond the reach of government interference. But whether any given employee can be considered a minister and beyond the reach of government nondiscrimination law is currently determined on the facts of each case rather than by a general rule, although one federal judge has proposed such a rule.
For now, SPU looks like it has a legal fight on its hands. It also appears to be experiencing an internal dispute, with a majority of the faculty and students urging the school’s acceptance of same-sex relationships, while its board of trustees continues to maintain a hiring policy that hues to biblical standards.
The SPU legal case may ultimately end up at the Supreme Court in yet another major religious freedom case involving the hiring rights of religious entities.
In fact, the SPU case resembles one that very nearly got accepted and addressed by the Supreme Court in February. That case involves a professor at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.
Although the high court decided not to address the Gordon College case yet – but could down the road – four of the justices explained that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s “understanding of religious education,” which would restrict religious freedom in employment decisions, thus far in that case was “troubling.”
And so, in this writer’s humble opinion, is AG Ferguson’s understanding of religious education in Washington state.
Only time, and the future course of SPU’s litigation as well as that of Gordon College, will tell.
The case is Seattle Pacific University v. Ferguson.
Photo from Facebook.