- Six Seattle Pacific University trustees — including the interim president — breached fiduciary duty by placing their religious beliefs above their responsibility to steward the Christian institution when they preserved an anti-LGBTQ hiring policy, alleges a lawsuit filed Monday.
- A group of 16 current and former students, employees and alumni sued the trustees in King County Superior Court in Washington, alleging they formed a "rogue board" that rigged a May vote in order to to preserve the policy, which doesn't allow the institution to employ LGBTQ people who are in relationships with someone of the same sex. Now university leaders, employees and business partners are leaving, while the institution faces a budget deficit and falling enrollment, the lawsuit says.
- The plaintiffs seek damages to be paid to the university and to have the defendants removed from their positions. They're also asking for a court-appointed receiver to oversee the selection of replacement trustees and a new interim president.
Colleges with religious affiliations have been moving to the front of campus culture wars. Monday's lawsuit joins another high-profile court case that sits at the crossroads of anti-discrimination laws and religious colleges' policies about sexuality.
On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court said Yeshiva University does not need to recognize an LGBTQ student club while the institution, historically affiliated with Orthodox Judaism, appeals a trial court's order saying it must allow the club in order to comply with New York City's human rights law.
A similar issue is at play in Washington, where the state supreme court has interpreted an anti-discrimination law as preventing religiously affiliated employers from withholding jobs from LGBTQ candidates seeking nonministerial positions. The lawsuit against Seattle Pacific references that case.
But the primary issue in the Seattle Pacific lawsuit is fiduciary duty — the idea that trustees must act to benefit institutions they oversee. Plaintiffs say trustees affiliated with the Free Methodist Church breached their fiduciary duty by pursuing the church's interests before those of the university as they sought to maintain the hiring policy over several tumultuous years.
Seattle Pacific expects employees to adhere to "lifestyle expectations" that include avoiding extramarital sexual activity, the lawsuit says. The policy is paired with an understanding that same-sex marriage is immoral, essentially denying employment to LGBTQ people, it says.
The policy has become an increasingly contentious issue in recent years.
The university's president, Daniel Martin, resigned at the beginning of April 2021, and trustees voted that same month to maintain the policy.
In response, more than 500 people signed a letter saying they would not donate to the university, according to the lawsuit. Seattle Pacific's faculty senate also passed a vote of no confidence in the board.
The issue would come up again for a vote, and the lawsuit says trustees maneuvered to make it harder for the board to end the employment policy.
This year, two Seattle Pacific board members presented a resolution to the Free Methodist Church's governing board under which the church will disaffiliate from associated educational institutions that permit "hiring of individuals living a lifestyle inconsistent with the FMC Book of Discipline's teachings on sexual purity," according to the lawsuit.
The resolution meant that any trustee votes on changing Seattle Pacific's hiring policy require a 75% supermajority to pass. That supermajority requirement applies to efforts to disaffiliate the university from the church.
The church passed the resolution, the lawsuit says. This May, trustees voted to keep the university's hiring policy.
The lawsuit accuses the trustees of using the university as a weapon in "the sectarian battles of the Free Methodist Church." One of the trustees it names as a defendant, Matthew Whitehead, is lead bishop for the church.
In June, Washington's attorney general began an inquiry into the university's employment practices. The university responded by suing the attorney general, alleging violations of its religious freedom.
Had the board members not acted as they did, the attorney general would not have investigated the university, the lawsuit argues.
The university has since faced protests. Students handed rainbow flags at graduation to interim president Pete Menjares — who is a trustee and defendant in the lawsuit — and held a lengthy sit-in this spring.
Fallout from the turmoil has affected the university's bottom line, the lawsuit alleges. It says Seattle Pacific faces a roughly $10 million deficit this year and plans to soon cut faculty headcount by more than 20%.
"Over the past five years, dozens of LGBTQ+ employees and job applicants have been terminated, pushed out, denied job offers or otherwise discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression," the lawsuit alleges. It also says seven trustees resigned from the 14-person board between March 2021 and the beginning of August this year.
A Seattle Pacific spokesperson said in a statement that the institution is aware of the lawsuit and "will respond in due course." The spokesperson also pointed to a board announcement of its decision in May, in which its chair, Cedric Davis, said the vote was in line with the university's mission, statement of faith, and ability to remain "in communion with its founding denomination."