Methodist-linked university’s Christian conduct code under fire from LGBT advocates

Rainbow capitol Hand wearing gay pride rainbow wristband making a power fist gesture in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Via Shutterstock

Do church-affiliated universities and Christian moral codes have a place in higher ed?

Critics of the Methodist-linked Seattle Pacific University, it seems, think the answer is no. They have filed a lawsuit against the university’s board of trustees after it reaffirmed that full-time employees may not be in same-sex relationships.

The controversy could have broad implications: Catholic and other Christian educational institutions have faced similar lawsuits over their religious identities and expectations for faculty and staff.

“Seattle Pacific is fighting to protect its freedom, as a religious university, to have religious standards in hiring,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket legal group, which is representing the school in a separate, related legal dispute over the university’s conduct code with the state attorney general.

“The First Amendment protects the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide what they believe and who should lead them,” she told CNA. “If Seattle Pacific loses that right, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other faith groups will lose it, too.”

Multiple undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty and staff of Seattle Pacific University filed a lawsuit against the university’s trustees on Sept. 11 in Washington state superior court.

Their complaint is pointed in its criticisms of the trustees and the university’s affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, whose members founded the school in 1891. It alleged that the reaffirmation of the conduct code is a breach of fiduciary duty.

The lawsuit accused the trustees of “placing their personal religious beliefs above their fiduciary duty” to the university and its people. It claimed that the board is “rogue” for various actions, including its consultations with the Free Methodist Church, and demanded the appointment of a new board.

“These men treat the university and its assets like a personal weapon and war chest to fight the sectarian battles of the Free Methodist Church USA,” said the lawsuit.

The Free Methodist Church USA, headquartered in Indianapolis, has about 68,000 members in under 850 churches in the U.S. However, the Protestant denomination has more than 1.2 million adherents globally, with its largest church membership in India and Burundi. The denomination has five other universities and a seminary in the U.S.

The lawsuit characterized the church as “a denomination with a small domestic constituency” that is “openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.” The lawsuit claimed the trustees have “pledged their primary allegiance” to the Methodist denomination. The lawsuit characterizes the link between the university and the denomination as “voluntary” and “informal.” 

The lawsuit objected that the university’s hiring policies “advance the interests of a religious denomination at the expense of the students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university.”

Some trustees leave, but board stands firm

The university’s board of trustees reaffirmed the conduct code in May, in part due to concerns about preserving its affiliation with the Free Methodist Church USA. In reaction, some students and staff held protests and called for the board to be removed. About 80% of the faculty voted to back the employment of people in same-sex marriages.

The university’s bylaws require the president and at least one-third of all trustees to be members of the church, according to Becket. Each year, each trustee must reaffirm his or her commitment to the university’s mission and faith statement.

The six trustees named as defendants include Dr. Matthew Whitehead, currently the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church who oversees the denomination in the Western U.S., Africa, and Asia. Another defendant is Mark Mason, who serves with Whitehead on the Free Methodist Church Board of Accountability. Seven of the board’s 14 trustees have resigned since last year, with some voicing objections to the conduct code.

“Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course,” Tracy Norlen, director of public information at the university’s Office of Communications, told CNA Sept. 19.

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The lawsuit against the trustees has a financial aspect. It contends that the board “derives power from its ability to control the highly valuable assets of both the university and its foundation.” The complaint claimed that the university is “financially and structurally imploding” and that these assets will go to the Free Methodist Church if the university dissolves. University assets, land, and buildings exceed $500 million in value, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that the board of trustees now lacks the minimum number of members required by its bylaws. It asked the court to remove the trustees and university officers and put the university into receivership so that new trustees can be elected.

The university faces a $10 million deficit and an enrollment decline since 2015 from 4,175 students to 3,400 last fall. Cedric Davis, a former chair of the board of trustees who resigned over his disagreement with the sexual conduct statement, told the Seattle Times some of the enrollment decline is due to broader trends in higher education. He disagreed with the lawsuit’s claim that the university is “imploding.” Rather, he suggested the school will become smaller and more conservative.

Paul Southwick, the attorney representing the student and faculty plaintiffs, is director of the Portland, Oregon-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The project is sponsored by Soulforce, an LGBT advocacy group that has for more than a decade rallied opposition against sexual conduct codes at religious colleges and universities, including Seattle Pacific University.

Soulforce also backs a federal lawsuit that seeks to end federal funding of “any university that discriminates and abuses LGBTQI people.” 

University pressured by attorney general

The office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also is involved in the legal controversy.

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After receiving complaints from students and faculty about the conduct code, Ferguson’s office sent a letter to the university in June saying the policies may violate state anti-discrimination law. The letter sought detailed information about how the university applies the policies. Additionally, it sought contact information for those affected by the policies and job descriptions of every position at the school.

Ferguson’s involvement prompted the Becket legal group’s federal lawsuit, filed July 27 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, challenging the attorney general’s actions.

“If the university changed its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, the university would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church. The university would no longer be a denominational institution,” Becket’s lawsuit states.

The university can fulfill its mission, it adds, “only with a faculty of Christians who affirm the university’s Statement of Faith, who affirm the university’s mission, who live out their Christian faith, and who bring their faith into all aspects of their lives, including their teaching and scholarship.”

The U.S. Constitution protects the university’s right “to decide matters of faith and doctrine, to hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and to select and retain ministers free from government interference,” the Becket lawsuit states.

It accuses the attorney general’s probe of violating the constitution’s “clear prohibition on interference in matters of church governance, including entangling investigations of religious employment decisions and the selection of ministers.”

The probe “inquires into confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution,” the lawsuit argues. It alleges that Ferguson is “wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”

Just days after Becket filed the lawsuit, Ferguson announced on July 29 that his office was investigating alleged discrimination charges against the university. He characterized the religious freedom lawsuit as a demonstration “that the university believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the university’s compliance with state law.”

“Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed,” Ferguson said. “My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination. That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions,” Ferguson said. “As a person of faith, I share that view. My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.”

Ferguson’s biography on his office’s website notes his personal involvement in successfully suing a florist who declined to serve a same-sex wedding ceremony on religious grounds.

Other legal cases in the state could have an impact. Last year the Washington Supreme Court allowed a bisexual lawyer to proceed with a discrimination lawsuit against a Christian nonprofit that serves the homeless. The organization had declined to offer him a job because he was in a same-sex relationship and rejected its Christian code of conduct.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has a “ministerial exception” for many religious nonprofits’ employee policies, the state Supreme Court said a trial court must answer the “open question” of whether a staff attorney for the nonprofit qualifies as a minister.

Another Methodist body, the United Methodist Church, agreed to split over disagreement on LGBT issues, though plans for the separation have fallen through after delays from the COVID-19 pandemic.