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Christian university fights Washington state probe into anti-LGBTQ hiring practices

Seattle Pacific University also accuses Attorney General Bob Ferguson of persecuting people of faith and faith-based entities.

TACOMA, Wash. (CN) — Seattle Pacific University sued Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Wednesday over his office's investigation into hiring practices after the school made national headlines when students challenged its ban on LGBTQ employees.

Students and staff staged a sit-in and called for the removal of Seattle Pacific'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.” The vote came after a period of upheaval at the university: A faculty applicant sued the school claiming sexual orientation discrimination, students and faculty called on the school to drop its positions on human sexuality — even taking a vote of no confidence in the board — and a working group of faculty, students and trustees recommended the changes that were ultimately rejected.

According to the university's complaint, all of this led a group of students to ask Ferguson to take legal action against the school and its board. Ferguson then sent a letter demanding "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 complaint says.

"The letter clearly indicates that the attorney general considers 'prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity' to be in violation of the law," the university says 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."

According to the complaint, Ferguson’s probe seeks information regarding the school’s internal religious matters, hiring practices, communication between ministerial employees and the selection of the school leadership positions in an effort to determine whether the school has violated the Constitution.

But the school says it's Ferguson who is violating the Constitution by encroaching on the university’s First Amendment rights by interfering with its relationship with the Free Methodist Church, which established the school in 1891.

"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 says in its complaint. And that disaffiliation would occur whether the university changed its policy voluntarily or because Ferguson forced it to do so, the school says.

Seattle Pacific claims Ferguson has a pattern of going after people and entities on the basis of their faith.

“The attorney general aggressively and selectively prosecutes claims of discrimination by religious individuals and entities, arguing that they are not protected by the state or federal constitutions,” the school says in its complaint. “Without relief, the university will be subjected to and is already being subjected to a government probe into internal religious matters, interference with internal religious discussions and decisions, interference with the relationship with ministerial employees and chilling of religious exercise and free expression.”

Ferguson disputed those claims in a statement, calling himself a "person of faith." But, he said, his job is to protect Washingtonians from discrimination.

“We did not publicize the letter, nor did we announce our investigation. In response to our inquiry, Seattle Pacific University filed a federal lawsuit," Ferguson said. "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.

“Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed."

The school's claims include First Amendment retaliation, interference with church autonomy, and other violations of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. It seeks a court declaration that it is constitutionally free to make its hiring and doctrine decisions and that Washington state's law against discrimination cannot be applied to the school.

It is represented by Nathaniel Taylor of the firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry in Seattle.

“Seattle Pacific University is asking a federal court to stop Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson from interfering in the religious decisions of a Christian university seeking to remain true to its faith and mission," said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, in an email. Becket is also representing the university.

"Mr. Ferguson recently singled out Seattle Pacific because of its Christian beliefs, demanding information about the school’s religious hiring practices and employees. For years, American courts have been clear that external officials cannot dictate how religious institutions live out their faith commitments. Our laws protect religious universities from unlawful demands by governmental officials.” 

The university's lawsuit comes amid a national trend to ban discussions of LGBTQ-related topics in schools and calls to revoke same-sex marriage, particularly among supporters of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas called open season on cases in which substantive due process was relied on to establish civil rights, including same-sex marriage, sexual activity between consenting adults behind closed doors — regardless of their gender — and the ability to freely access contraception.

"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including GriswoldLawrence, and Obergefell. Because any substantive due process decision is 'demonstrably erroneous,' we have a duty to 'correct the error' established in those precedents," Thomas wrote, citing the majority's reasoning for taking down Roe.

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