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Judge Dismisses SPU Lawsuit Aimed at Halting Probe into University’s Hiring Practices

(RNS) — A federal judge on Oct. 26 dismissed Seattle Pacific University’s lawsuit that sought to stop Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s investigation into the school’s hiring practices.

Ferguson in late July confirmed his office was investigating the university for potential illegal discrimination against people who identify as LGBTQ due to the school’s employment policies. His announcement came after SPU — a private school associated with the Free Methodist Church — sued Ferguson, claiming his probe aims to influence the university “in its application and understanding of church teaching.” In late August, Ferguson filed to dismiss the lawsuit.

According to a news release from the attorney general’s office, the federal judge ruled SPU’s arguments — which claim Ferguson’s probe infringes on the university’s First Amendment right “to govern itself according to religious principles” — should be raised in state court. The judge said SPU asked for a change in state law the federal court cannot grant.The attorney general is continuing with its investigation.

Ferguson, in a statement, said his office “respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions.”

However, he added, SPU “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.

SPU’s interim president, Pete Menjares, said in a statement that he was disappointed by the ruling, but he added that the court “did not decide whether the state can investigate our university’s internal affairs.”

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“We will continue to defend ourselves from unlawful interference with our Christian mission,” Menjares said.

Ferguson’s filing in August said that, in May, hundreds of Washington state residents wrote to his office to complain about the school’s employment practices “and to express concern that the University discriminates against faculty and staff on the basis of sexual orientation.”
During that time, students staged a more than monthlong sit-in beginning in late May to protest the board of trustees’ decision to retain a policy barring the hiring of people who identify as LGBTQ.

At issue is the school’s employee lifestyle expectation policy that states, in part, “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.”

The nonprofit law firm Becket is representing SPU.

Lori Windham, Becket’s vice president and senior counsel, 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,” Windham said in a statement.

Alejandra Molina

Alejandra is a national reporter for Religion News Service where she covers Latinos and religion. Her work has appeared in the AP, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Press-Enterprise, and Orange County Register.