A federal district court judge Oct. 26 rejected a university’s bid to block a state investigation into claims it discriminates against LGBTQ applicants and employees.
Washington’s attorney general initiated an investigation earlier this year, saying he had reason to believe Seattle Pacific University permits or requires discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including by prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity.
SPU, which is associated with the Free Methodist Church, sued the state, aiming to block the investigation. The school argued its employment practices are required by its religious beliefs and protected by the First Amendment; “Seattle Pacific expects its faculty, staff and leadership to agree with the University’s statement of faith and to live out that faith as a model for others, including by living according to the University’s religious teachings on marriage,” it said.
Following the suit’s dismissal, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said his office respects religious institutions’ constitutional rights but has a responsibility to uphold civil rights.
SPU counsel said the school will continue to operate in accordance with its religious mission. “We are disappointed with the procedural ruling, however, it did not touch on the larger issue regarding Seattle Pacific’s First Amendment rights,” Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in a statement. “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.”
A “ministerial exception” gives religious employers some leeway in employment decisions but the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on where the line is drawn. Justice Samuel Alito said earlier this year that “the day may soon come” when the court will have to decide whether the First Amendment protects religious organizations’ freedom to hire people of the same religious beliefs.