An adjunct nursing professor at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) filed a lawsuit this week accusing the private Christian university of discriminating against him and refusing him job opportunities because of his sexual orientation.
Jéaux Rinedahl — who teaches in SPU’s Lydia Green Nursing Program in the School of Health Sciences and has nearly 40 years of experience in the health care industry — alleged in the lawsuit that when he applied for a full-time, tenured position as an associate nursing professor, the university rejected his application because he’s gay.
SPU, which is in Queen Anne, told Rinedahl that he could still teach as a part-time instructor, but that he wasn’t eligible for the full-time position, according to the complaint.
“Despite the equality that courts have recognized in establishing that gay men and women cannot be discriminated against, it breaks my heart that SPU still treats us differently as being unequal to all others who teach at the university,” Rinedahl said in a statement.
The university responded in a statement Thursday, though it didn’t address details of the lawsuit and said it was “still reviewing facts of this case.”
“We are grateful for Mr. Rinedahl’s work with our students and for his service to Seattle Pacific University,” it began.
“We recognize that Mr. Rinedahl’s lawsuit raises questions of Christian practice which are being debated vigorously throughout the global church,” the university continued. “As a Christian university that is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, and while also employing individuals from a variety of Christian denominations, we acknowledge that diverse views exist within various faith communities, including within our own. The importance and complexity of this issue will continue to inform conversations as we strive to respect and care for all members of our community.”
Rinedahl said in a phone interview this week that he joined SPU’s adjunct faculty in April 2020 for the upcoming spring quarter to teach courses in community health. He served as a liaison for graduating senior nursing students working in the field, and became a virtual classroom instructor because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When he saw the full-time faculty position posted in May, he was thrilled.
“It was a dream come true,” Rinedahl said. “What I’ve been looking for for all of my career.”
The then-dean of the school’s nursing program encouraged him to apply, but according to Rinedahl, about a month later she called to tell him the university had rejected his application for one reason: “It’s because you’re not heterosexual.”
“She actually did say that,” Rinedahl said. “I was shocked.”
He added, “I had to sit down because I was getting weak and dizzy. I had prepared myself for this opportunity for years. … This is what I was going to do for the rest of my career until retirement, and in a sentence, it was gone.”
Rinedahl said the dean, who has since been promoted to interim dean of the School of Health Sciences, added that, in order to be employed full-time, he would have to sign a statement declaring he was heterosexual.
“I could not do that,” Rinedahl said.
The university has since said it does not require employees to sign any such statement.
“The university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation but does have religious-based conduct expectations for regular faculty and staff positions,” SPU said, but it did not elaborate.
Despite the school’s decision, Rinedahl said he was “repeatedly” invited to continue teaching nursing courses in the fall. He declined, citing his commitment to his new full-time job — a role in the nursing field — but said he would return in the spring to teach part-time.
“It’s a difficult decision to think about going back to an employer who simply hates you for who you are and what you stand for and for nothing to do with your personality or performance,” he said.
But ultimately, he said, he doesn’t want to abandon his students and still wants to teach full-time.
“I love teaching,” he said. “The students are going to suffer from (the departure of) a dedicated instructor who cares about them. … And it would be a shame for them.”
Rinedahl isn’t the only educator in the Seattle area in recent years to allege job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2014, Eastside Catholic High School vice principal Mark Zmuda was forced to resign after school officials found out he had married his male partner. At least five teachers left their jobs at King’s High School in Shoreline in 2019, in protest over anti-gay language in a new policy from CRISTA Ministries, King’s parent organization. And last February, two teachers at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien said they were forced to quit because of their same-sex relationships.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as Title VII, that bars job discrimination because of sex, among other reasons, encompasses bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rinedahl’s attorneys aren’t filing the suit under Title VII but are alleging the university is violating state and city anti-discrimination laws. Dan Kalish, one of the attorneys representing Rinedahl along with Erin Norgaard and Brian Dolman of HKM Employment Attorneys, said that as of Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t heard anything from SPU.
Kalish said the university could respond by saying they’re in line with a ministerial exception, which courts have said allow religious institutions to skirt anti-discrimination laws when hiring ministers. The question then, often becomes, “Who qualifies as a minister?”
Not Rinedahl, Kalish argues.
The full-time position Rinedahl applied to is a nonministerial teaching role, he added. Nursing professors are not required to provide ministerial services, the complaint says. A copy of the job description for the full-time role, which doesn’t mention any religious requirements, is attached to the complaint.
The law firm also created a petition on behalf of Rinedahl this week, asking the community to call on SPU to hire him on full-time. As of Thursday evening, it had collected more than 1,700 signatures.
University of Washington law professor Peter Nicolas, who specializes in LGBTQ+ rights and religion, among other topics, said that SPU can try to argue in court that they have First Amendment religious rights that trump anti-discrimination statutes.
“This is the area that is most unsettled, and will likely have to be resolved eventually by the (U.S.) Supreme Court,” Nicolas wrote in an email.
“(The lawsuit’s) success will depend on SPU’s claims that they fall within a religious exemption under state law and/or the First Amendment,” he wrote in an email. “That the position is about nursing and not theology tends to make their defense harder to make.”
The news about Rinedahl’s lawsuit has added to frustration that’s been building among some students for years, said Alex Moore, an SPU senior studying social justice and cultural studies. She’s openly queer, she said, and said the administration’s perceived anti-LGBTQ+ stance is “something you get to know well.”
“It’s nothing new,” Moore said, adding that students have been working for a “long time” to change SPU’s language, policies and practices relating to LGBTQ+ students and staff. But Rinedahl’s complaint does give them hope, she said.
“I was excited that this professor was bold enough to file a lawsuit,” Moore said. “What’s great about this is now that we have a little more legal grounding, (SPU) is probably paying more attention to students vocalizing this.”
Moore and six other students are planning a demonstration outside SPU President Dan Martin’s on-campus residence Friday afternoon and are hoping it will draw other students, faculty members and community members.
“It’ll be a socially distanced protest and party,” Moore said. “To celebrate LGTBQ students and show support for Professor Rinedahl.”
Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this story.