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Christian university fights back: Seattle Pacific University sues Washington AG for violating its First Amendment rights

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Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, has filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of the state of Washington, Bob Ferguson, for intruding on its private religious convictions, private communications, and hiring practices.

On Wednesday, SPU filed a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, alleging that Ferguson had violated its constitutional rights when he initiated an investigation into the school's hiring practices after receiving complaints that the school had discriminated against gay applicants.

Early last month, Ferguson had sent a letter to SPU's attorney, claiming that he had "learned of information that suggests that the University may utilize employment policies and practices that permit or require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including by prohibiting same-sex marriage and activity."

Ferguson then demanded that members of SPU provide to him all SPU documentation regarding its policies about sexual orientation, any instances in which gay applicants had been denied employment or terminated based on sexual orientation, any complaints lodged in connection to policies regarding sexual orientation, and the job descriptions of all positions at SPU, both faculty and staff.

Ferguson then gave SPU until June 22 to furnish his office with the solicited documentation. Rather than comply, however, SPU filed the federal lawsuit against Ferguson.

"As part of its religious commitment, Seattle Pacific expects its faculty, staff and leadership to agree with the University’s statement of faith and to live out that faith as a model for others, including by living according to the University’s religious teachings on marriage," the lawsuit states. "Seattle Pacific relies on its faculty, staff, and leadership to provide a Christian higher education by integrating faith and learning."

"Seattle Pacific holds to traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality, in alignment with the Free Methodist Church," the lawsuit also states.

The lawsuit expresses the hope that a federal court will affirm SPU's First Amendment rights to operate according to the dictates of its religious faith, issue an injunction against Ferguson and the state's AG office to prevent any future interference in the private practices of SPU, and prompt the AG's office to compensate SPU for legal fees associated with this case and any "such other and further relief as the Court deems equitable and just."

The legal organization Becket, “a non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths,” is representing SPU in this case.

Becket issued a statement regarding Ferguson's inquiries and SPU's lawsuit:

"Seattle Pacific University is asking a federal court to stop Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson from interfering in the religious decisions of a Christian university seeking to remain true to its faith and mission. Mr. Ferguson recently singled out Seattle Pacific because of its Christian beliefs, demanding information about the school’s religious hiring practices and employees. For years, American courts have been clear that external officials cannot dictate how religious institutions live out their faith commitments. Our laws protect religious universities from unlawful demands by governmental officials.”

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