After months of protesting an anti-LGBTQ hiring policy, 16 students, faculty, and staff members at a small Christian university sued members of its board on Monday. The plaintiffs say the campus is “imploding.”
The lawsuit accuses Seattle Pacific University’s interim president and five of its current and former trustees of preserving a policy that bans people in same-sex relationships from being hired for full-time jobs — a guideline that has been widely criticized on campus. The policy in question states that employees are expected to refrain from “cohabitation, extramarital sexual activity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
According to the lawsuit, the trustees’ decision threatens to harm the university’s reputation and future enrollment, a position that breaches their “fiduciary duties.” The trustees, the lawsuit states, “chose this path in order to defend a discriminatory hiring policy that undermined, and has torn apart, the heart and soul of SPU.”
An expert told The Chronicle in July, when the students announced their intention to sue, that the legal argument would be hard to prove.
The complaint describes the trustees who support the anti-LGBTQ policy as “a rogue board.” After the vote to uphold the policy in May, the board’s chair resigned; two other trustees stepped aside shortly before the vote.
The new lawsuit, filed in Washington State Superior Court, asks that the six defendants be removed from their positions on the board and for damages to be paid to anyone harmed by the policy. The six defendants include the university’s interim president, Pete Menjares; the board chair Dean Kato; the trustees Matthew Whitehead, Mark Mason, and Mike Quinn, and the former trustee Michael McKee.
When you get to the point where you’re protesting for years, you have to think, what else can we do that’s new?
Whitehead and Mason are members of the Free Methodist Church’s board of administration. The church, which founded Seattle Pacific in 1891, does not support same-sex marriage.
A spokeswoman from SPU referred The Chronicle to the board’s May decision to uphold the hiring policy and said that “Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course.”
In the past, the college’s trustees have asserted that SPU’s religious beliefs allow them to uphold the policy. The university recently sued Washington State’s attorney general for alleged religious discrimination after he tried to investigate the institution’s hiring practices.
“The fact that this policy exists and has continually been reaffirmed is damaging to the campus,” said Chloe Guillot, a 22-year-old recent graduate and one of the plaintiffs.
Throughout June, Guillot and other students conducted sit-ins outside of the president’s office to protest the hiring policy, as previously reported by The Chronicle. The sit-ins were partly in response to a different lawsuit. In January 2021, Jéaux Rinedahl, an adjunct professor of nursing, sued Seattle Pacific for refusing to hire him as a tenured professor because of his sexuality.
In May of this year, the board released a statement saying that the matter had been settled out of court and that the hiring policy would remain unchanged.
Student activists continued to gather outside the president’s office until July, but nothing happened.
Then students and others turned to the idea of a lawsuit.
“We’ve been protesting at SPU for LGBTQ rights for years. It’s nothing new to us,” Guillot said. “When you get to the point where you’re protesting for years, you have to think, what else can we do that’s new?”
Guillot, who now attends Seattle Pacific Seminary, and other protesters contacted lawyers and found more plaintiffs to build their case.
Lynette Bikos, a professor in the department of clinical psychology who has taught at the university for 18 years, is one of them. She said she wasn’t made aware of the anti-LGBTQ policy when she was hired.
“I feel like I’ve been a part of a system that has perpetuated harm, and I want to be a part of a system that makes things right,” Bikos said.
Guillot said she initially felt sick to her stomach on Monday, the day the lawsuit was announced. But once she stepped onto the Seattle Pacific campus, she said, students were stopping to congratulate her and thank her for the lawsuit.
Bikos said that the campus had a vibe of “frivolity and fun” on Monday. Students decorated the center of campus with rainbow-colored streamers and balloons. In addition to tables from clubs offering support and LGBTQ resources on campus, there was a cake from Costco that said “Happy Lawsuit Day” and another cake proclaiming “It’s a Boy!” — except “Boy!” was crossed out and replaced with “Lawsuit!”
“Feeling that support on campus definitely helped the knot in my stomach,” Guillot said. “It reminded me that this is who we’re fighting for.”