Friday marked the 10th full day of an ongoing sit-in protest at Seattle Pacific University, where a group of students, staff and alumni are pressuring the school’s board of trustees to reverse course on an employment policy that discriminates against LGBTQ+ people.
Students say they plan to continue the sit-in until their demands are met — but so far the board hasn’t budged, leaving few options for those who want to see the change.
Laur Lugos is the student government president at SPU, and is helping organize the sit-in, taking place in the campus administration building, Demaray Hall. They plan to be there for as long as it takes, even after the school year ends, if necessary. Lugos said hundreds of people are signing up for shifts every few days.
“Students have organized it and have been the ones putting it together, but the entire community is backing this and supporting this,” Lugos said.
Lugos said that staff and alumni have signed up to participate, with some traveling from miles away to take on shifts. Others have pledged to withhold donations and other financial support from the school until the policy is changed.
The ongoing protest comes after the SPU board of trustees voted in late May to uphold the school’s “Employee Lifestyle Expectations” policy that prohibits full-time staff from participating in “same-sex sexual activity,” among other things. Pushback against the policy has been ongoing, with LGBTQ+ activists, advocates and allies on campus turning up the pressure in recent months.
Last year, the SPU Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the board after trustees elected to uphold the policy. That decision came after an adjunct nursing professor sued the school, alleging leaders denied him a promotion because he’s gay. School leaders then created a work group to explore how to make the campus more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. The group ultimately recommended the board get rid of the rule this spring — a recommendation the board subsequently rejected.
Ahead of the trustees meeting last month, the school’s church affiliate, Free Methodist Church USA, warned that should the school remove its “Employee Lifestyle Expectations,” it would lose its church affiliation. But the church doesn’t have any legal oversight or ownership over the school or its property — the governance of the school lies exclusively with the trustees.
Inside Higher Ed co-founder and editor Scott Jaschik said the way private religious schools navigate policies for LGBTQ+ folks on campus is a major national issue, but varies across different religions or denominations. For example, he said, Catholic colleges generally don’t prohibit all full-time faculty or staff from being in same-sex marriages, though they may have some restrictions for those who work in theology departments or other areas of study directly related to religious teachings.
“They believe what they believe, but they do not have an across-the-board enforcement of this kind of rule,” he said. “It tends to be the Southern Baptist colleges where you hear about something like this.”
Jaschik added that private religious schools don’t really get much funding from their church affiliates either. According to an SPU spokesperson, the Free Methodist has provided $324,000 in financial support to the school “through its various entities” over the past 40 years.
SPU protesters have three demands: first, for the board to reveal how each trustee voted on the employment policy last month; second, for members who voted against keeping the policy to condemn those who voted to uphold it; and third, for board members who voted in favor of keeping it to resign.
But with the trustees in control of school governance, those who want to see change have limited options if the board decides to ignore their demands.
Still, Lugos doesn’t see the momentum behind the protest fading any time soon. She said that those making the demands are working on filing a lawsuit against the trustees. An online fundraiser posted earlier in the week has received more than $20,000 in donations to support the effort, as of Friday afternoon.
Jaschik said it might be difficult to successfully challenge the trustees in court — there are plenty of schools similar to SPU.
“I don’t know what they’ll do … but that’s a hard road to go down,” he said.
So far, two board members have resigned in the midst of the controversy, with a third leaving after completing his most recent term. Board Chair Cedric Davis resigned from the board May 26, shortly after the sit-in began, and board member Denise Martinez resigned on May 19, the same week of the board’s vote. Board member Kevin Johnson finished out his three-year term on May 20.
Davis and Martinez’s motivations for resigning remain unclear; neither could be reached for comment. But Lugos worries about the changes, since the trustees who have left are likely the ones who support changing the school’s employee policy.
“It’s really frustrating and disheartening,” Lugos said. “What we want to do is to get the homophobic board members to resign.”
Meanwhile, the Faculty Senate voted Friday on a resolution that would formalize faculty support for the work group’s recommendations and disagreement with the board’s decision, as well as a desire to seek out other potential church partners. The results are expected to be made public next week.