Faculty, students sue Christian school over LGBTQ hiring ban

Sep 12, 2022, 9:59 AM | Updated: 8:46 pm

Divisions over LGBTQ-related policies have flared recently at several religious colleges in the United States. On Monday, there was a dramatic new turn at one of the most rancorous battlegrounds – Seattle Pacific University.

A group of students, faculty and staff at the Christian university sued leaders of the board of trustees for refusing to scrap an employment policy barring people in same-sex relationships from full-time jobs at SPU. The 16 plaintiffs say the trustees’ stance – widely opposed on campus – is a breach of their fiduciary duties that threatens to harm SPU’s reputation, worsen enrollment difficulties and possibly jeopardize its future.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington State Superior Court, requests that the defendants – including the university’s interim president, Pete Menjares – be removed from their positions. It asks that economic damages, in an amount to be determined at a jury trial, be paid to anyone harmed by the LGBTQ hiring policy.

“This case is about six men who act as if they, and the educational institution they are charged to protect, are above the law,” the lawsuit says. “While these men are powerful, they are not above the law… They must be held to account for their illegal and reckless conduct.”

In addition to Menjares, the defendants are board chair Dean Kato; trustees Matthew Whitehead, Mark Mason and Mike Quinn, and former trustee 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 SPU in 1891.

Asked if the university had a response to the lawsuit, SPU’s director of public information, Tracy Norlen, replied via email, “Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course.”

SPU’s LGBTQ-related employment policy has been a source of bitter division on the campus over the past two years. One catalyst was a lawsuit filed against SPU in January 2021 by Jeaux Rinedahl, an adjunct professor who alleged he was denied a full-time, tenured position because he was gay.

That lawsuit eventually was settled out of court, but it intensified criticism of the hiring policy. Through surveys and petitions, it’s clear that large majorities of the faculty and student body oppose the policy, yet a majority of the trustees reaffirmed it in May – triggering resignations by other trustees and protests by students that included a prolonged sit-in at the school’s administrative offices.

At SPU’s graduation on June 12, dozens of students protested by handing gay-pride flags to Menjares, rather than shake his hand, as they received diplomas.

Kato, the trustees’ chair, responded to the protests with a firm defense of the hiring policy.

“We acknowledge there is disagreement among people of faith on the topic 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 on biblical marriage and sexuality.”

In June, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson notified 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 same-sex marriage or relationship.

On July 27, SPU filed a federal court lawsuit against Ferguson, contending that his investigation violated the university’s right to religious freedom.

“Seattle Pacific has asked a federal district court to step in and protect its freedom to choose employees on the basis of religion, free from government interference or intimidation,” the school said in a statement.

Ferguson responded two days later, declaring that his office “respects the religious views of all Washingtonians” but chiding SPU for resorting to litigation.

“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,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said his office intervened after receiving numerous complaints from SPU faculty and students. Their basic concern, he said, was that the university — located in one of the country’s most liberal cities — “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 trustees include six SPU students and 10 members of the faculty or staff.

Among them is Chloe Guillot, who graduated from SPU earlier this year and now – despite her differences with the trustees – attends the university’s seminary.

“I’m stubborn — there’s a part of me that refuses to give up,” she said, “I love professors I’ve had.”

“One thing that’s been hard to communicate to the public is how the actions of the board are so different from the rest of the university,” Guillot said. “The lawsuit goes through the ways these board members have orchestrated a coup that contradicts everything the university stands for.”

Among the faculty plaintiffs is Lynette Bikos, a professor of clinical psychology. She described the board’s behavior as “nefarious” — jeopardizing SPU’s future and undermining its longstanding commitment to diversity.

She cited the possibility of a 25% reduction in faculty positions and said consultants had warned professors that SPU might have only a few more years of financial viability unless circumstances change.

The school’s total enrollment last fall was 3,443, down from 4,175 in 2015.

Bikos said she’s deeply committed to fighting the employment policy, yet finds the effort exhausting.

“Never in my life did I think I’d be part of a lawsuit,” she said. “That’s not who I am.”

Paul Southwick, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the university likely would seek dismissal of the lawsuit but predicted the court would allow a jury trial to proceed. He declined to predict an ultimate outcome, but said that under state law, Washington’s attorney general has the right to remove university trustees under certain circumstances.

Tensions over LGBTQ-related policies have flared recently at other religious universities in the U.S.

At Brigham Young – run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — LGBTQ students and their allies at the Provo, Utah, school have been protesting rules that forbid same-sex romantic partnerships or physical displays of affection.

Yeshiva University – based in New York City – has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a state court order mandating that the Orthodox Jewish school recognize an LGBTQ student group – the YU Pride Alliance – as an official campus club. On Friday, the Supreme Court granted Yeshiva’s request for the time being, and signaled it may consider the case more fully.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Members of the Henderson Fire Department load Deb Billet, 66, into an ambulance before trans...

Associated Press

Things to know about heat deaths as a dangerously hot summer shapes up in the western US

A dangerously hot summer is shaping up in the U.S. West, with heat suspected in dozens of recent deaths.

15 hours ago

FILE - Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the "Ask Dr. Ruth" panel during the Hulu presentation at...

Associated Press

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist who became a pop icon, has died

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist who became a pop icon, media star and best-selling author, has died.

19 hours ago

Biden proposes rule to protect 36 million workers from extreme heat...

Associated Press

Biden proposes new rule to protect 36 million workers from extreme heat

President Joe Biden on Tuesday proposed a new rule to address excessive heat in the workplace, warning — as tens of millions of people in the U.S. are under heat advisories — that high temperatures are the country's leading weather-related killer.

11 days ago

FILE - Rori Chang, of Glendale, Ariz., walks with her dog Ava as they leave the Maricopa Country An...

Associated Press

Here are ways that can help ease dogs’ July Fourth dread

Those with furry, four-legged family members will be searching for solutions to the Fourth of July anxiety that fireworks bring.

12 days ago

Fossilized crocodilian excrement is displayed at the "Poozeum", Friday, June 7, 2024, in Williams, ...

Associated Press

Museum in northern Arizona tells stories of ancient animals through their fossilized poop

The Poozeum opened in May in Williams, a northern Arizona town known for its Wild West shows along Route 66.

12 days ago


Associated Press

Walgreens to take a hard look at underperforming stores, could shutter hundreds more

Walgreens is finalizing a plan to fix its business that could result in the closure of hundreds of additional stores in the next three years.

16 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.



Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

Faculty, students sue Christian school over LGBTQ hiring ban