Queen Anne & Magnolia News file photo: Seattle Pacific University is suing the Washington State Attorney General's Office for 'interfering' in the private university's hiring practices.
Queen Anne & Magnolia News file photo: Seattle Pacific University is suing the Washington State Attorney General's Office for 'interfering' in the private university's hiring practices.

Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian University associated with the Free Methodist Church, has filed a lawsuit against Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson claiming that his inquiry into University hiring practices violates its free exercise of religion.

“SPU believes the attorney general’s office has targeted the university because of its Christian beliefs and is asking the federal court to ensure it can maintain its religious identity,” according to a University statement.

The probe was launched in the wake of student protests in May against the University’s employment policy, which states that “employees are expected to refrain from sexual behavior that is inconsistent with the University's understanding of Biblical standards, including cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity,” according to the SPU website.

On June 8 Assistant Attorney Daniel Jeon wrote to the University in response to complaints received by the Attorney General’s office.

“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 said in a statement.

The letter, obtained by The Center Square, states that AG’s office was inquiring into whether or not University employment practices discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage.

Jeon asked the University to produce four things: any hiring and personnel policies relating to sexual orientation or same-sex marriage or partnership; a list of occasions when those policies were used to prevent the hiring, promotion, termination or discipline of University personnel; any complaints about the policy received by the University; and all job descriptions and eligibility requirements for University personnel.

The letter asked for a response by July 8. The University did not respond. 

On July 27, the University filed a lawsuit against Ferguson in federal court alleging, “The attorney general is 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 Seattle Pacific University.”

The University also claims overreach by the AG’s office in asking for sensitive documents relating to all matters related to employee hiring and discipline.

SPU is seeking relief under the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution, asking the court to declare that the University has the right to make decisions regarding faith and doctrine free from governmental interference and to make employment decisions based on those beliefs.

“The state is going after a 130-year-old Christian university and violating our country’s long-standing principle of the separation of church and state,” Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, who is representing SPU, said in a statement. “We will defend Seattle Pacific’s right to operate its school in accordance with its faith.”

“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” Ferguson stated, and, “Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed.”