Seattle Pacific University v. Ferguson

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
July 29, 2022
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

Founded in 1891, Seattle Pacific University is a Christian university fully committed to engaging the culture and changing the world by graduating people of competence and character, becoming people of wisdom, and modeling grace-filled community. Over the past few years, Seattle Pacific has navigated difficult and important conversations surrounding traditional Christian teaching on marriage and human sexuality.

In 2022, the Washington Attorney General targeted SPU over its religious expectations for employees and demanded that SPU hand over half a decade’s worth of sensitive internal employment information. This challenge to SPU’s religious policies and demand for confidential information violates the essential protections afforded to religious groups under the First Amendment—an action that courts across America have rejected as unlawful. Becket is working to protect SPU’s rights to determine its own religious beliefs and mission.

Status

On October 26, 2022, a federal district court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, ruling that federal courts are powerless to protect SPU’s First Amendment rights. Becket appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court heard oral argument on November 16, 2023.
Seattle Pacific University

Case Summary

About Seattle Pacific University

A Christian Liberal Arts University Engages the Culture

For over 130 years, Seattle Pacific University has welcomed students to join a diverse community of thoughtful scholarship and outward-focused Christian faith. Seattle Pacific holds fast to its mission to engage the culture and change the world. While SPU welcomes students from all (or no) faith backgrounds, it encourages every student to explore or grow deeper in Christian faith. This mission requires engaging in complex topics with personal and spiritual sensitivity. At Seattle Pacific, employees are asked to be committed to and embody this mission and belief. Yet that mission is now under threat.

A Political Test for a Religious Institution

In June 2022, The Washington Attorney General’s office launched a probe into Seattle Pacific University’s beliefs and policies on marriage and human sexuality. They demanded personal information about employees and years’ worth of sensitive employee documents. The University had no choice but to ask a federal court to protect its religious identity and mission.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the state has targeted Seattle Pacific because of its religious beliefs. In the 1980s, the state of Washington attempted to interfere in Seattle Pacific University’s faith-based hiring decisions. The university sought protection in court, and after eighteen months of litigation, the state backed down. Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has only further protected the right of religious institutions to make faith-based hiring decisions and resolve issues of doctrine and practice within their own religious communities, free from governmental interference.

Faced with an unconstitutional investigation, Seattle Pacific is again asking a federal court to protect the healthy separation of church and state and the University’s ability to make its own decisions about faith, employees, and leadership. If the University is subject to this kind of government scrutiny, the same thing can happen to religious schools of every faith. Fortunately, the law is clear on this point and has been for years: governments cannot tell religious institutions what to believe or who should lead them.

Government Attempt to Change Doctrine

On October 26, 2022, a Washington federal district court heard Seattle Pacific’s case. The court ruled against Seattle Pacific on purely procedural grounds, saying that the University should continue its claims in state court. Becket appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where it asked the court to protect the school’s ability to educate students in accordance with its faith without government interference. Oral argument took place on November 16, 2023. 

 


Importance to Religious Liberty:

Church Autonomy: Seattle Pacific University is supported by a legacy of church autonomy cases, including Hosanna-Tabor and Our Lady of Guadalupe. These cases and other lower court decisions highlight the importance of a religious community being able to make its own decisions about what it believes, what it teaches, and who can lead it. Therefore, a victory for the University means that many diverse religious groups are free to decide for themselves what they believe and who leads them.

 

Photo Credit: Ian Dewar Photography