WA Attorney General fights court to investigate a university for upholding Christian teaching

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleged the department violated its First Amendment rights.

The controversy stemmed from a policy that requires faculty to follow a Christian teaching of sexuality.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is fighting to continue his investigation into Seattle Pacific University (SPU) to determine whether the school can require faculty to adhere to the biblical teaching of sexuality.

On Aug. 18, Ferguson filed a motion to dismiss a July 27 lawsuit the Christian school filed in response to the AG Office’s investigation into its “Employee Lifestyle Expectation” clause. The policy, which is binding for all university staff, prohibits same-sex relationships.

While the AG Office claims that the policy “illegally violate[s] Washingtonians’ civil rights,” SPU claims that the investigation infringes on its religious liberty. 

[RELATED: Students raise over $37K to sue Christian university for upholding ‘Biblical standards’]

However, Ferguson argued in the motion that SPU lacks “standing” to accuse the administration of violating its First Amendment rights, nor is the case “ripe for judicial review.”

“SPU’s fears of a lawsuit, based solely on one inquiry letter, cannot serve as the basis for review when the AGO is still in the process of determining whether SPU’s conduct is lawful,” the motion claims. “Because resolving SPU’s allegations involving the ministerial exception will necessarily require developing the facts, this case is far from fit for review.”

Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, told Campus Reform that the investigation "violates the bedrock principle of separation of church and state."

"His investigation demands years’ worth of confidential, personal information about employees at Seattle Pacific and is clearly unconstitutional," she claimed. "That is why Seattle Pacific is asking a federal court for protection, to ensure that it can maintain its enduring commitment to the university’s religious mission.”  

The investigation was launched after student protests erupted in response to the Board of Trustees voting to retain the policy in question, drawing national attention.

The probe will determine whether the university’s policy qualifies under the “ministerial exception,” which would exempt the university from being bound by federal discrimination laws. 

Ministerial Exception extends from the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment and protects churches from legal challenges for carrying out religious operations. 

However, Ferguson argues that not all employees may qualify for this exemption. 

“SPU’s Complaint is conspicuously silent as to whether it employs non-ministerial employees who are nonetheless subject to the policy restricting their employment on the basis of sexual orientation,” he states.

[RELATED: Christian college loses plea to keep men out of women’s dorms]

Nonetheless, the university insists that the probe violates its First Amendment right to religious freedom.

"[The AG] is using the powers of his office (and even powers not granted to his office) to pressure and retaliate against Seattle Pacific University. But governmental attempts to probe the mind of a religious institution are a blatant form of entanglement barred by both Religion Clauses of the First Amendment,” SPU’s lawsuit reads.

While it is unclear whether or not the investigation will continue, the motion was supported by the student-led organization Seattle Pacific LGBTQ+ Protest, who commended Ferguson for “demonstrat[ing] a willingness to stand up to SPU’s bullying tactics.”

The group has fundraised over $50,600 to fund its legal action against the university. It set a goal of raising $150,000 to file a lawsuit against the Board of Trustees for allegedly “not acting in the best interest of the organization.”

Campus Reform contacted SPU, Ferguson, and the student group for comment. The best effort was made to contact the Board of Trustees. This article will be updated accordingly.

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