Campus community wrestles with next steps

Policy’s fate in hands of Board of Trustees, still

Kyle Morrison, Staff Writer

Many students and faculty members voice their frustrations with SPU’s choice to chose its alignment with the Free Methodist Church instead of supporting its queer students. (Shianne Heeraman)

Jeaux Rinedahl’s January 2021 lawsuit brought a new awareness to LGBTQIA+ rights at Seattle Pacific University. On May 2, both parties settled out of court, capping off a 16-month legal battle between him and SPU over the university’s hiring policies. 

With this decision came a variety of conversations and emotions erupting all around campus.

Isabel Bartosh, the incoming president of Haven, expressed concern for the university’s direction following the settlement.

“I kind of expected this, and I’m very worried that SPU is going to take the opportunity to stop any forward progress that could have been possible,” Bartosh explained. “In a lot of cases, civil rights and human rights are won through court cases, and I think I and a lot of people were looking at the Rinedahl case as an opportunity for SPU to be forced to reckon with itself.”

Associated Students of Seattle Pacific Executive Vice President Ciarra Choe does not think the settlement will make much of a difference in the push to change the university’s policies, but did acknowledge it was a missed opportunity. She thinks the Board of Trustees is fully aware of how serious this issue is on campus. 

“I do think it would have been a straightforward way for SPU to get justice on this campus,”

Choe said. “As ASSP, we actually met with the director of the [Board of Trustees], Cedric [Davis]. The board is very well aware at this point of how pressing this issue is.”

Interim President Pete Menjares announced the settlement to the SPU community through email on May 4. In the email, Menjares touted the settlement as a victory for religious freedom and the ability for Christian institutions to settle complex issues in their own communities, a process he is looking forward to seeing continue in the future.

“We continue to engage in discussions about how best to live out our identity as a Christian university, including with respect to employment policies,” Menjares said. “I am grateful for the conversations that have been facilitated over the past several months through the ‘SPU in One Room’ events. I am also especially appreciative of all the work that has been done by the LGBTQIA+ Work Group these past several months.” 

The details of the settlement are confidential, something unsurprising to communications Professor Dr. Matthew Bellinger.

“I was glad to hear an update. I was not surprised that the announcement of a settlement would be pretty sparse in details given the university’s need to protect its options legally,” Bellinger explained. “My sense is that the campus community is not looking so much at the specifics of the Rinedahl case but to the board vote later this month.”

The Board of Trustees will decide whether to take the suggestion of the LGBTQIA+ Work Group to modify the statement on human sexuality and the university’s hiring policies. The work group, which was convened in January to advise the board on the next steps in addressing the issue, held a public forum announcing their suggestions.

The workgroup stopped short of advising the board to fully affirm LGBTQIA+ people and relationships but instead advocated for “third options.” 

“The “third-way” variations differ concerning the Statement on Human Sexuality: one variation retains the statement as an expression of our denominational heritage, the second variation eliminates the SoHS, and the third variation revises the SoHS to acknowledge different Christian perspectives on human sexuality,” the workgroup explained in its email.

During the work group’s announcements to faculty and staff, it was reported that many FMC-affiliated university leaders received emails detailing possible disaffiliation with the institution if they decide to change policies regarding sexuality.  

Choe thinks this possibility may sway the board’s decision on the matter. 

“That, in a way, undermines all the work the working group has done because the circumstances have completely changed now,” Choe explained. “If we want to stay affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, that means that we absolutely cannot change the statement or hiring policies. I spoke with a couple of board members after the working group session, and now I think it’s an issue of, ‘Do we want to stay affiliated with the Free Methodist Church?’”

Until the board has its vote and makes its decision, SPU continues to await some sort of resolution on how to move past this 16-month saga that began when Rinedahl announced his lawsuit.

Dr. Bellinger is looking forward to hearing the conclusion. 

“I think we are all exhausted. I think we are all sick of having to have this conversation and deal with this,” Bellinger said. “I think a lot is riding a lot on the vote later. What way will it go? That kind of determines what’s going to happen next on campus in a lot of ways.”