Attorney General opens civil rights investigation into Seattle Pacific University, SPU sues in return

Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Friday announced a civil rights investigation into Seattle Pacific University for refusing to hire LGBTQ+ faculty and staff.

Months ago students and staff staged a sit-in for about a week calling for the removal of the university's board of trustees.

The university filed a federal lawsuit trying to block the investigation.

Ferguson released the following statement on Friday, saying that his office has heard from "numerous" students, faculty and others filed complaints against SPU:

"Seattle Pacific University admits that it refuses to hire gay faculty and staff," Ferguson said. "In May, Seattle Pacific University students and staff staged a sit-in and called for the removal of the University’s board of trustees after they voted to keep in place school policies that prohibit employees from engaging in ‘same-sex sexual activity.’ Numerous Seattle Pacific University students, faculty, and others reached out to my office to file complaints or otherwise express deep concern that the University administration’s policies illegally violate Washingtonians’ civil rights.

"My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions. As a person of faith, I share that view. My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal. We responded to the complaints from concerned Washingtonians by sending the University a letter. The letter asked four questions. The letter also invited the University to provide any additional information that it wanted my office to consider.

"We did not publicize the letter, nor did we announce our investigation. In response to our inquiry, Seattle Pacific University filed a federal lawsuit. The lawsuit demonstrates that the University believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the University’s compliance with state law."

Ferguson's office is now asking for anyone who may have been discriminated by the university to come forward.

"Anyone who believes they were subject to possible employment discrimination by Seattle Pacific University should contact my civil rights team at," Ferguson said.

FOX 13 received the following statement on behalf of SPU from Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket:

"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."

Back in June, a large number of graduating seniors took the stage and handed interim president Pete Menjares a Pride flag, and some refused to shake his hand.

A loop of roughly a dozen students taking part spread like wildfire on the internet, leading to national headlines.

SPU has previously released a FAQ section about their decision, as the controversy has grown.

RELATED: LGBTQ students, allies go viral with act of defiance at SPU graduation

The flags were just the latest action. While seniors walked, underclassmen continued a sit-in that started in late May just outside of Menjares’ office. Students marched through campus and took over the space inside Demaray Hall following the school’s board of trustees' vote to re-affirm a policy that bans the university from hiring LGBTQIA+ employees.

An "Employee Lifestyle Expectations" policy was voted on in late May. However, the fight over banning same-sex employees stretches further back.

Jeaux Rinedahl sued the school in 2021, accusing SPU of rejecting his application for a full-time tenured job because he’s gay. Rinedahl, who was an adjunct nursing professor, has since settled out of court.