A Christian university located in Seattle, Washington has sued the state attorney general in federal court for his office's investigation into the school's hiring practices.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson's office opened a civil rights investigation into Seattle Pacific University's employment policies after some students and staff challenged the university's refusal to hire LGBTQ people.
The university's 22-page complaint filed on July 27 in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma accuses Ferguson of "wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with. He is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate" against the school.
Courthouse News reports Ferguson's office became involved after some students and staff staged a sit-in and called for the removal of the university's board of trustees after they voted this past May to keep a school policy that prohibits staff from engaging in "same-sex sexual activity."
An LGBTQ faculty applicant then sued Seattle Pacific for sexual orientation discrimination. The lawsuit was followed by several students and faculty members calling for the school to drop its biblical position on sexuality, along with a vote of "no confidence" from both groups, according to the outlet.
A group of students also contacted Ferguson, urging the state AG to sue the board of trustees and the university for discrimination. In a June letter, the attorney general said he expected, "prompt production of voluminous and sensitive internal information on the university's religious policies and their application to any and all faculty, staff, and administrators," the university's lawsuit said.
"The letter clearly indicates that the attorney general considers 'prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity' to be in violation of the law," Seattle Pacific said in its complaint. "The First Amendment protects the ability of religious organizations to follow the teachings of their faith on marriage and sexual relationships outside marriage, and to maintain policies consistent with those beliefs."
"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 complaint continued. "The attorney general's probe inquires into confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution."
School Founded by Free Methodist Church in Latter Part of 19th Century
The university also argued Ferguson is violating its First Amendment rights by coming between the school and the Free Methodist Church. The denomination founded the university in 1891, according to Seattle Pacific's website. The school's Statement of Faith is also posted on the website.
"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 University would no longer be a denominational institution," the complaint said. "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 lawsuit also said, "The Board of Trustees is committed to upholding the University's religious beliefs and values." Adding, "The University seeks the freedom to hold theological discussions and make determinations of faith, doctrine, and policy without government interference."
Seattle Pacific also contends that the Washington attorney general has in the past gone after individuals and other groups because of their faith.
Washington State AG Fires Back
In a statement, Ferguson confirmed his office was involved in a civil rights investigation of the school but disputed the school's claims.
He said he was "a person of faith" and that his office "did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University's employment policies or its actions are illegal."
"We responded to the complaints from concerned Washingtonians by sending the University a letter. The letter asked four questions. The letter also invited the University to provide any additional information that it wanted my office to consider," the statement said.
"We did not publicize the letter, nor did we announce our investigation. In response to our inquiry, Seattle Pacific University filed a federal lawsuit. The lawsuit demonstrates that the University 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."
Daniel Benson is an attorney for Becket, a religious liberty law firm representing Seattle Pacific.
"The United States Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment protects religious organizations' ability to decide for themselves what they believe and how they will carry that out," Benson told KING5-TV. "The university is now in federal court hoping to protect its ability to live out its faith and create a community of vibrant Christian faith in accordance with its religious beliefs."
Benson told the outlet the U.S. Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed the rights of religious education organizations and claims that the First Amendment serves as protection for SPU to make its hiring and personnel decisions on the basis of its Statement of Faith.
"That's what this suit will vindicate, is that right of religious organizations to be authentically religious and to maintain those religiously based hiring standards," the Beckett attorney said. "What the university does is ask for the right to continue being authentic to its religious beliefs, and that means, for its faculty and staff, maintaining religious hiring policies that are in line with the university's faith."
As CBN News reported, the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the freedom of religious schools to choose leaders who will uphold their core religious teachings.
In the case, Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis, a former co-director of guidance at a Catholic high school sued the Archdiocese after her contract was not renewed because she entered a same-sex union in violation of her contract and Catholic teaching.
The appeals court ruled that the former employee's lawsuit must be dismissed because the Constitution forbids the government from interfering with a religious school's selection of who will pass on the faith to its students.