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Judge tosses Seattle Pacific University suit over Washington’s anti-LGBT hiring probe

The Christian university claimed the state had no business demanding information about its hiring practices or interfering with its relationship with the Free Methodist church.

TACOMA, Wash. (CN) — Attorneys for Seattle Pacific University failed Wednesday to convince a federal judge it has standing to sue Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson for launching an investigation into the Christian school's hiring practices regarding LGBTQ individuals.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan dismissed Seattle Pacific’s lawsuit against Ferguson from the bench, citing a lack of redressability.

Seattle Pacific sued Ferguson this past July after Ferguson's office initiated an investigation into the school’s hiring practices after student and staff sit-ins and calls to remove the school's board of trustees, in response to a May 2022 vote 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 school said in its complaint.

Ferguson’s probe seeks five years of 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.

According to Seattle Pacific’s lawyer Lori Windham of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Ferguson’s request represents an unprecedented amount of private information sought by the government — 800 employee records, to be exact. Additionally, Windham argued Ferguson’s probe circumvents formal processes of requesting individual employee information, basing the probe on public complaints from those who “disagree with university theology,” and not people who experienced discrimination from the school.

As such, the school believes Ferguson is the one 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.

The school's claims included First Amendment retaliation, interference with church autonomy, and other violations of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. It sought 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.

An amended complaint added claims of retaliation, citing Ferguson’s press release after the school’s lawsuit which called for more complaints to filed against the university. “Anyone who believes they were subject to possible employment discrimination by Seattle Pacific University should contact my office," Ferguson said in the statement.

“Upon information and belief, the attorney general had not previously asked the public to file complaints against the university," the school said in the amended complaint.

Ferguson moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the school lacked standing because its claims were not redressable.

"Even if the university could demonstrate standing, this case is extraordinarily premature and not ripe for judicial review,” Ferguson said in the motion. “SPU’s fears of a lawsuit, based solely on one inquiry letter, cannot serve as the basis for review with the AGO is still in the process of determining whether SPU’s conduct is lawful.”

At one point, Judge Bryan asked Ferguson's attorney Daniel Jeon what would have happened if Seattle Pacific declined to participate in the probe. “There would be no legal consequences to ignoring our letter,” Jeon said, noting Ferguson’s office has not asked anything further of the university since filing the lawsuit.

Judge Bryan found that while the probe may have injured the school, the injury can't be remedied without changing state law and limiting the powers of Ferguson's office — something outside of Bryan's authority to order.

In leu of providing comment after the hearing, Windham released a statement shortly after.

“We are disappointed with today’s procedural ruling, however, it did not touch on the larger issue regarding Seattle Pacific’s First Amendment rights,” Windham said. “The court did not rule on the attorney general’s unlawful investigation. We will continue to defend SPU’s right to express its faith in all aspects of university life. “

Pete Menjares, interim president of Seattle Pacific, expressed similar sentiments.

“The government should not interfere with our ability to operate out of our sincerely held religious beliefs,” Menjares said in a statement. “We are disappointed with today’s ruling, but the court did not decide whether the state can investigate our university’s internal affairs. We will continue to defend ourselves from unlawful interference with our Christian mission.”

In a statement Ferguson reiterated Seattle Pacific is not above the law.

“Instead of answering questions about its hiring process, the university filed a federal lawsuit arguing that it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that my office cannot even send it a letter asking for information about its employment policies,” Ferguson said. “Today, a federal judge appropriately rejected that extreme position. It is our responsibility to uphold Washingtonians’ civil rights, and we plan to do that job.”

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Categories / Civil Rights, Education, Employment, Religion

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