A group of students, faculty, staff, and alumni from Seattle Pacific University filed a lawsuit against the university’s board of trustees after over a year of protesting policies that do not allow full-time staff and faculty in same-sex relationships to be hired.
The lawsuit, filed on Sept. 11 in the superior court for King County in Washington state, alleges that six members of SPU’s board of trustees breached fiduciary duty and committed fraud, among other complaints. The Associated Press first reported on the lawsuit.
Paul Southwick, a lawyer working in LGBTQ civil rights and director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, filed the lawsuit along with the Snell & Wilmer law firm on behalf of more than 15 plaintiffs.
Jill Heiney-Smith, one of the plaintiffs and professor and director of graduate teacher education at SPU, told Sojourners she “never dreamed” she would be participating in a lawsuit against the university.
“[My family and I] decided together that if I was going to stay, I had to do it,” she said. “I feel that convicted about the disintegration of this place I love … it’s worth the risk to me and potential risks to my career.”
Heiney-Smith, who also attended SPU for undergraduate and doctoral studies, said that she grew “increasingly uncomfortable” with how the policy is “misaligned” with the values she was teaching to graduate students. She also said how she and other faculty were impressed with the students who have been leading the action against the SPU policy.
“As a teacher, one of my strongest core values is to learn along with my students,” she said. “The way that I’ve been able to learn with them and grow with them has been really powerful.”
In June, Washington state attorney Bob Ferguson opened an investigation into whether SPU was violating the state’s anti-discrimination laws. In July, the school responded by filing a lawsuit against the attorney general alleging that the school’s religious liberties were being violated; Ferguson has filed to dismiss the school’s lawsuit.
Southwick told Sojourners his office was approached in early June and spent about three months compiling the complaint against the school’s board. The lawsuit alleges that the six men in the lawsuit formed a “rogue board” that put their own interests above the interested of the university.
“The ringleader of the ‘rogue board’ is Matthew Whitehead,” Southwick said. “He, along with the other defendants, are the ones that essentially pressured and threatened the other board members into resigning or going along with Whitehead’s plan to manipulate corporate governance documents so that the board would not be able to rescind the discriminatory hiring policy.”
Seattle Pacific’s community has been protesting the university policy against hiring full-time staff or faculty in same-sex relationships for over a year. Nearly 90 percent of students and 75 percent of staff, along with 80 percent of faculty, wanted to rescind the policy. In the last year, students organized a weeks-long sit-in, a protest during graduation, and fundraised over $35,000 for their lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, Whitehead and another trustee “devised a plan to deceive and intimidate the other BOT members into believing that if they voted to remove the illegal hiring policy, they would automatically be voting to disaffiliate from the [Free Methodist Church USA].”
Disaffiliation requires 75 percent approval from the board, while changing staff policies requires a 50 percent majority. Southwick said that the board had more than 50 percent willing to change the policy when Whitehead and another unknown member helped the FMC release a statement that said any change to an affiliates’ same-sex policies would be considered disaffiliation.
“Despite numerous valiant efforts, no one has been able to stop these men from destroying SPU,” the lawsuit reads. “For several years, the students, alumni, faculty, staff, as well as the other trustees of SPU, have spent thousands of hours attempting to educate, reason with, and persuade these men to do what it is in the best interest of the university, rather than what is in the best interests of the FMC.”
Tracy Norlen, an SPU spokesperson, told Sojourners the university was aware of the lawsuit and had no other comment at this time.