Seattle Pacific University’s policy against hiring people in same-sex relationships is not only discriminatory, it is causing the institution to implode, according to 16 students, faculty members and staff members who filed a lawsuit against trustees of the Christian school this week.
SPU is on course to run a $10 million deficit, student enrollment is dropping, and faculty and staff are leaving in droves, according to the 56-page complaint filed in King County Superior Court as a new school year begins. The lawsuit accuses six current and former trustees, including interim SPU President Pete Menjares, of breach of fiduciary duty, among other allegations. It seeks the appointment of a new president and board.
“This case is about accountability,” the complaint said, naming trustees it alleges were members of a “rogue” board within a board that pushed “a discriminatory hiring policy that undermined, and has torn apart, the heart and soul of SPU.”
“Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course,” spokesperson Tracy Norlen said in an emailed statement. The school did not make Menjares or trustees available for interviews, and said it would not answer questions related to claims in the lawsuit.
SPU has previously said that it faced disaffiliation from the Free Methodist Church if it changed its hiring policy, which is abiding by the church’s teachings on sexual conduct.
Cedric Davis, a former SPU board of trustees chair who is not a party to the lawsuit, confirmed several aspects of the complaint, including the projected $10 million deficit and dropping student numbers, although he said part of the enrollment decline reflected a broader trend in higher education as some young people choose not to go to college.
Roughly 3,400 students were enrolled at SPU last fall, down from 4,175 in 2015, according to Norlen.
Davis resigned from the board in May. “I couldn’t stand by the policy,” he said, referring to the prohibition on hiring people in same-sex relationships. Six other trustees have also resigned from the 14-person board since March 2021, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit follows repeated student, faculty and staff protests over the policy and a now-settled lawsuit by an adjunct nursing professor who said he was denied a promotion because he’s gay.
There’s also an ongoing investigation by the state attorney general’s office into possible illegal discrimination at SPU and a countersuit by the university claiming a violation of religious freedom.
Similar disputes are playing out at religious colleges across the country, said attorney Paul Southwick, who represents the plaintiffs in this suit and is director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, a Portland-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ students.
What’s different, though, is the level of campuswide resistance at SPU, which over the past few decades has grown increasingly diverse, he said. According to the complaint, 24% of students, faculty and staff identify as LGBTQ+.
Protests about the hiring policy have included a two-month sit-in outside the president’s office, and, in a faculty vote, 80% agreed the university should allow employment of people in same-sex marriages. Now, in signing on to the lawsuit, some faculty and staff are putting their jobs on the line.
“I’ve been doing this work for over 10 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Southwick said.
Kristi Holt, a plaintiff who works as a lab coordinator and adjunct instructor in SPU’s chemistry department, said she joined the lawsuit because she also believes in religious freedom. “I’m simply afraid that the way that the defendants are choosing to enforce their sectarian beliefs on an entire campus of dissenters is no longer religious freedom. It’s just oppression.”
“On a personal note,” she continued, “it’s really tough for me to come to work each day with people who love and support me but within the context of an institution that continues to tell me that I don’t belong.”
Holt, hired three years ago, came out as a lesbian last year.
Another plaintiff, Lynette Bikos, associate dean for SPU’s School of Psychology, Family and Community, said she is worried about the well-being of LGBTQ+ students who feel alienated by the administration’s stance.
Bikos, too, said she fears for the future of the school. “It feels pretty dire,” she said, recounting that administrators recently announced the need for a 25% reduction in faculty, which might entail layoffs next year.
Chloe Guillot, who got an undergraduate degree from SPU and is starting to work toward a master’s through the university’s divinity program, said she and like-minded students, faculty and staff have tried everything they could think of to change the hiring policy. Many, she said, fear “the college won’t be around in five years if we continue down this path,” and the lawsuit seems like the only other option to save the school.
A key part of the lawsuit involves an allegation that some members of a “rogue” board devised a plan to intimidate other SPU board members into voting against changing the hiring policy.
The rogue board members, according to the complaint, went behind the backs of other SPU board members to elicit a threat from the church that SPU would be disaffiliated if it hired people in same-sex relationships.
SPU’s trustees subsequently voted against changing the policy.
Davis, the former SPU board chair, said he wouldn’t say that SPU is imploding, exactly. “It’s certainly going through significant challenges. I think SPU will continue on. It’s just going to be a different institution” — smaller, he said, and more conservative.