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Washington university sues to stop probe into religious beliefs by state

Seattle Pacific University sued after attorney general began probing into religious beliefs

A Christian university in Washington is suing the state’s attorney general over an investigation into the school’s hiring practices concerning individuals in homosexual relationships.

Seattle Pacific University’s ongoing federal lawsuit pushes back against Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s request for documents and information on the Free Methodist university’s religious beliefs.

The university, in upholding its Christian beliefs, “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 federal lawsuit stated.

Further, “the probe is not limited to a single dispute or employee, but seeks to regulate and surveil a religious school’s relationships with all its employees and leaders.”

“The attorney general has taken the position that policies like Seattle Pacific’s, which ask leaders to follow a religious organization’s teachings, are unlawful and unwelcome in Washington,” the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit accused Ferguson (pictured) of violating the First Amendment rights of SPU.

“Despite the Constitution’s clear prohibition on interference in matters of church governance, including entangling investigations of religious employment decisions and the selection of ministers, Washington’s attorney general has launched a probe that does just that,” attorneys argued.

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There is no particular person alleging a violation of his or her rights, the lawsuit argued.

In a statement on its website, the university stressed the importance of its religious mission and its 130-year old relationship with the Free Methodist Church. In its lawsuit, the university also says if it was required to hire individuals in same-sex marriages, it would be disaffiliated with the Free Methodist Church.

The state’s top law enforcement officer defended the probe.

“Seattle Pacific University admits that it refuses to hire gay faculty and staff. In May, Seattle Pacific University students and staff staged a sit-in and called for the removal of the University’s board of trustees after they voted to keep in place school policies that prohibit employees from engaging in ‘same-sex sexual activity,'” the attorney general’s office wrote in a media statement.

“Numerous Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others reached out to my office to file complaints or otherwise express deep concern that the University administration’s policies illegally violate Washingtonians’ civil rights,” Ferguson stated.

“My 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,” he wrote.

The Fix asked for confirmation there were no current complaints against SPU. The Fix also asked if there was any precedent for investigating an organization without an active complaint against it.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents SPU, did not respond to a media inquiry from The Fix on August 8, nor did the other attorneys working on the case.

The university included a timeline of events that led to the investigation, including a since settled case from January 2021 from a faculty member who sued the school and claimed sexual orientation discrimination.

In late May 2022, university students organized a sit-in to protest the university’s decision not to change its Statement on Human Sexuality, and instead reaffirm its traditional Christian sexual ethics.

The attorney general announced the investigation on June 8 into the university.

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IMAGE: Attorney General of Washington

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About the Author
William Benson -- The Catholic University of America