Seattle Pacific University says state attorney general’s investigation into hiring policies violates religious rights

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Dive Brief:

  • Seattle Pacific University has sued the Washington Attorney General for investigating employment practices it says are required by its religious beliefs and protected by the First Amendment, the lawsuit alleges.
  • Seattle Pacific is a private, Christian institution aligned with the Free Methodist Church, according to the lawsuit and a statement on the university’s website. Seattle Pacific requires faculty and staff to abide by the church’s religious teachings on sexuality and marriage; the church and the university define marriage as between a man and a woman, the lawsuit states.
  • Prompted by student complaints, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson notified Seattle Pacific he was investigating the university for alleged sexual orientation discrimination and seeking information about its employees and religious practices, according to the lawsuit. “Seattle Pacific has asked a federal district court to step in and protect its freedom to choose employees on the basis of religion, free from government interference or intimidation,” the website states. 

Dive Insight:

This case and others may hasten a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court between anti-discrimination employment laws, many of which prohibit LGBTQ-based discrimination, and the First Amendment, which shields religious organizations from discrimination claims under certain circumstances.

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In one recent case, a bisexual job applicant sued a Christian employer after it refused to hire him. The state Supreme Court said he could take his claim to trial to determine if the law’s exemption for religious employers covered the position he applied for.

In March, the Supreme Court declined to review the case. However, in a comment accompanying the ruling, Justice Samuel Alito forecast that “the day may soon come” when the Court will have to decide if religious autonomy provided by the First Amendment protects a religious organization’s hiring decisions from government or court interference.

In June, the Court tilted the balance against government interference in favor of an individual’s exercise of religious beliefs in the public arena. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that a Washington public school district ran afoul of the First Amendment and violated a football coach’s religious rights when it fired him for privately praying on the field after a game. Although the case didn’t involve a religious employer, the five-justice majority expressed disdain for government entities that act “on a mistaken view that [they have] a duty to suppress religious observances even as [they allow] comparable secular speech.”

In reviewing employment actions at their institutions, human resources staff for religious employers should keep in mind Title VII’s exemption for organizations whose “purpose and character are primarily religious.” The exemption can include religious schools, hospitals and charities and permits qualifying organizations to hire and employ individuals who share their religious beliefs and practices, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance manual. For example, a small Catholic college could fire a mathematics instructor for signing a pro-choice ad in a local newspaper because her actions weren’t faithful to the school’s religious doctrines, the guidance explained.

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Human resources staff will also want to determine if the job at issue is covered by the First Amendment-based “ministerial exception.” In a seminal case Seattle Pacific cites in its lawsuit, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception barred discrimination claims by two teachers who taught elementary students at Roman Catholic schools in Los Angeles. The exception applies to certain discrimination claims against a religious institution by employees who “play certain key roles,” the EEOC said.

Another case to watch — also involving the ministerial exception — is making its way through Massachusetts courts. The plaintiff, a member of the social work department, claimed a Christian college refused to promote her because of her vocal opposition to the college’s practices regarding LGBTQ individuals.

Massachusetts’ top court held that the ministerial exception didn’t apply and allowed the case to go to trial. In February, the Supreme Court declined to review the decision. Similar to his comments in March, Alito agreed that review was premature, but he found the decision troubling because it interpreted the exception too narrowly. “What many faiths conceive of as ‘religious education’ includes much more than instruction in explicit religious doctrine or theology,” Alito wrote. The ministerial exception to discrimination claims includes religious teachers because they “show students how to view the world through a faith-based lens, even when teaching nominally secular subjects,” he said.

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