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Seattle Pacific University faculty votes no-confidence in leadership after board upholds discriminatory hiring policy

UPDATED: Wed., April 21, 2021

A woman prays in a campus chapel at Seattle Pacific University in 2014 in Seattle. SPU faculty members cast a vote of no-confidence in its leadership of the school’s Board of Trustees following a discriminatory hiring policy.  (Associated Press)
A woman prays in a campus chapel at Seattle Pacific University in 2014 in Seattle. SPU faculty members cast a vote of no-confidence in its leadership of the school’s Board of Trustees following a discriminatory hiring policy. (Associated Press)
By Elise Takahama Seattle Times

Seattle Pacific University faculty members have cast a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the school’s Board of Trustees, which last week announced it would retain a hiring policy that discriminates based on sexual orientation.

The private Christian school in Queen Anne has long been accused of not supporting its LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff, many of whom have repeatedly asked the school to reject a rule that doesn’t allow openly queer people to join the school’s full-time faculty. While many in the SPU community have voiced concerns about the policy for years, students say, a turning point in the conversation came in January, when adjunct nursing professor Jéaux Rinedahl sued the university, saying it did not hire him for a full-time position because he’s gay.

In a Monday evening statement, the school’s Faculty Senate wrote: “The Board’s decision to maintain SPU’s discriminatory hiring policy related to human sexuality, as well as its manner of delivering that decision, have regrettably compelled the faculty of SPU to pass a vote of no confidence in the SPU Board of Trustees.”

“We presume that each member of the Board – like each one of us – wants this institution to thrive. … But we fear that the Board’s actions imperil the ability of SPU and its community to flourish,” the statement said.

The Faculty Senate received responses from about 90% of faculty, with 72% in favor of the no-confidence vote and 22% against. Six percent abstained. In an email, the Faculty Council – an executive committee of the faculty – asked the Board to respond by next Monday.

The Board declined to comment on the vote.

The hiring policy in question is in the school’s employee handbook, which isn’t available to the public but says employees “are expected to refrain from … sexually immoral behavior that is inconsistent with Biblical standards, including cohabitation and extramarital sexual activity.” The handbook then directs employees to the school’s lengthy statement on human sexuality, which says the “sexual experience is intended between a man and a woman.”

Employees who engage in those activities may face disciplinary action, including termination, the handbook says.

The faculty’s statement listed several concerns, including the Board’s lack of engagement with the community, its dismissal of the ways students, faculty and staff have been harmed by the policy and any legal, financial or psychological ramifications of the hiring policy.

They concluded with a list of steps they directed the Board to take: Establish more opportunities for faculty and the Board to meet, provide a “detailed rationale” for the Board’s decision to keep the hiring policy and eliminate the policy.

“This statement of ‘no confidence’ is not a declaration of antagonism,” it said. “On the contrary, it is a call to the Board to engage faculty, staff, and students in deep, good-faith discussion so that we may better understand one another and find a path forward that we can all walk together.”

The vote comes a week after Cedric Davis, the school’s chair of the Board of Trustees, announced the decision at the end of an employee meeting. While the Board had “reflected on SPU’s long-standing affiliation with the Free Methodist Church” and “heard from bishops of the Free Methodist Church and experts in a variety of disciplines,” Davis read, it is “cognizant of historic orthodoxy and the Wesleyan and evangelical tradition in SPU’s 130-year history and in SPU’s Statement of Faith.”

“The Board recognizes that fellow Christians and other community members disagree in good faith on issues relating to human sexuality, and that these convictions are deeply and sincerely held,” he read. “We pray that as we live within the tension of this issue, we can be in dialogue with the SPU community.”

The announcement hit many SPU students and community members hard, especially those who have spent the last several months advocating for a change in policy and culture at the university.

“I’m definitely embarrassed that I go to SPU because at this point, we’re basically known for being a discriminatory school,” Ciarra Choe, an SPU junior, said last week. “And I don’t want to go to an institution that reps that. … I’m having a lot of trouble with my faith right now.”

Several professors have also spoken out against the Board’s decision, including psychology professor Dana Kendall, who recently resigned – in part, she said, because of the school’s exclusion of the queer community.

“Religion is being practiced in a way I don’t agree with anymore,” Kendall said. “This has been a long journey for me. … The goal is to do no harm and be humble and be of service and sacrificing. And these kinds of (SPU) practices have no place in my world view anymore.”

Matt Bellinger, an assistant professor of communication at SPU, described the Board’s decision a “profound moral failure,” and philosophy professor Leland Saunders said the ongoing conversations have “really fractured the university.”

“A decision so out of touch with the convictions and values of the SPU community calls into question the legitimacy of the Board’s leadership,” Bellinger wrote in a message to The Seattle Times.

Similar tensions have reverberated through other Christian colleges and universities in other parts of the country. Last month, 33 current and past students at federally funded Christian schools were cited in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, The Washington Post reported.

One of the plaintiffs is Spencer Vigil, an SPU alumni who alleges he was publicly humiliated and shamed by classmates and professors after he came out as a trans man in 2019. He reported the incidents to SPU, but no action was taken, according to the lawsuit.

The class-action lawsuit, which was filed by nonprofit Religious Exemption Accountability Project, says the religious exemption the schools are given that allow them to have discriminatory policies is unconstitutional because they receive government funding.

The lawsuit comes shortly after the U.S. House passed the Equality Act, which would add gender identity and sexuality to the groups protected under the Civil Rights Act while also weakening exemptions for religious groups and people, according to the Post. The act awaits a vote in the Senate.

The SPU community is also grappling with the recent resignation of former president Daniel Martin, who announced at the end of March his plans to take a job at a health care foundation.

His resignation before the academic year finished came as a shock to many students and faculty members.

According to Saunders, the philosophy professor, Martin articulated in January that his views on sexuality had changed and that he was “ready to present to the Board a rationale to address our hiring discriminatory policies.” Martin could not be reached for comment.

After hearing the Board’s announcement last week, José Flores and Lauren Lugos, who lead the Associated Students of Seattle Pacific, SPU’s student government body, quickly got to work in organizing rallies and showings of support for the school’s LGBTQ+ community, the first of which was held last Friday.

They’re also pushing the Board to reconsider its decision by May 1, known as National College Decision Day in the U.S., the day by which incoming college freshmen have to commit to a school.

“It’s to give students a chance to rethink their college decision and pick an institution that reflects what values they hold,” said Flores, a senior studying communications and theology. If the school doesn’t reconsider by then, he said, he and other students will try to “lure people away from SPU.”

“What can we do to drive students away?” wonders Lugos, who’s a junior studying music composition and social justice. She was angry when she heard the hiring policy would remain in place, especially because she identifies as Christian and felt the Board “was going to weaponize Christianity to oppress a specific group of people.”

Students are also reaching out to the school’s alumni and community partners in hopes of cutting their donations to SPU and threatening it financially.

“There was a time for dialogue and there was a time for conversation and it was met with deaf ears,” Flores said. “Now is the time for action.”

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