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Seattle Pacific University trustees sued by students and faculty

caption: The entrance to the sit-in space inside Demaray Hall on Seattle Pacific University's campus.
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The entrance to the sit-in space inside Demaray Hall on Seattle Pacific University's campus.
Noel Gasca | KUOW

Six members of Seattle Pacific University's Board of Trustees are facing a lawsuit regarding the university's anti-LGBTQ hiring policy.

But the lawsuit doesn't follow the typical route for a case against a religious institution.

On Sunday night a group of 16 students, faculty, and staff at Seattle Pacific University filed a lawsuit.

In it, they allege that six members of the school's Board of Trustees, including the university's interim president, have breached their fiduciary duty by upholding a university policy barring people in same-sex relationships from working full time at the school.

This lawsuit follows months of protest from students, the announcement that the state attorney general’s office is investigating Seattle Pacific University, as well as a countersuit by the school arguing the state is violating its religious freedoms.

"The Seattle Pacific University is not just a small, private Christian institution. It's actually heavily taxpayer funded," said Paul Southwick, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. "It's not affiliated with a specific denomination or controlled by a specific denomination. It's an ecumenical institution. And it's broadly serving the Seattle community. At that point, it's taking public money. It should be following, and is required to be following, public laws."

Southwick says that this lawsuit is about holding people in power accountable, and that these trustees "have violated their duty of loyalty to the institution, as well as their duties of care and obedience to the articles of incorporation, bylaws and mission statement of this ecumenical institution."

The lawsuit requests that the six board members be removed from their positions, and that economic damages be paid to anyone negatively impacted by the hiring policy.

This strategy, which focuses on fiduciary damages caused by a discriminatory hiring policy, as opposed to the policy itself, is unusual.

In fact, it's one Professor Elizabeth Ford says she's never seen before.

"This is unusual cause of action," Ford said.

Ford is a distinguished practitioner in residence at Seattle University School of Law.

This is a case Ford has seen used in a business setting . But, Ford says there will be specific factual questions that plaintiffs will face in a case against a school.

For example, it will be up to the plaintiffs to prove that Seattle Pacific University's enrollment numbers are out of line with general college enrollment decline, Ford said.

According to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment is down at colleges across the US. It dipped 4.1% between 2020 and 2021.

Professor Ford also notes that this case is unlikely to go to a federal level because all of the claims brought by the plaintiffs are based in state law.

Soundside also reached out to Seattle Pacific University for comment. They provided a short statement saying, "Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course.”

However, in a letter to faculty and staff sent last night, Interim President Peter Menjares wrote, "I'm disappointed we are facing this, but I also remain firm in my belief that we need to proactively defend the religious freedoms of our private university, as well as the decisions made in good faith by board leadership.

"I realize we have vigorous disagreement on this and other topics, but I also acknowledge my deep hope for a path forward around our shared mission as we launch a new academic year."

Soundside has confirmed the validity of the letter with Seattle Pacific University.

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