After a protest at their graduation went viral, dozens of students at a private Christian university in Washington drew national attention to their school and its policies on gay and lesbian employees.
During Sunday’s graduation ceremony, a group of graduating seniors from Seattle Pacific University presented interim President Pete Menjares with Pride flags. Others simply refused to shake his hand, and some advised him to resign.
It was the latest in a series of student actions over the years aimed at overturning Seattle Pacific’s policy prohibiting gay and lesbian employees. Those efforts are also part of a larger battle taking place at Christian schools across the country, including a class-action lawsuit filed last March challenging a religious exemption to Title IX, which protects students in the United States from gender or sexual orientation discrimination.
“For the seniors, it felt like doing something very visible on stage was the only appropriate way to go out,” said Laur Lugos, who instead of shaking Menjares’ hand on Sunday, handed him a letter.
Lugos, 22, urged Menjares to resign and vowed to “disrupt and dismantle” ideologies and institutions that keep people from Christ in the letter.
Menjares declined to be interviewed, according to a school spokeswoman. Menjares said in a brief statement, “it was a wonderful day to celebrate with our graduates.”
After “thorough and prayerful deliberation,” the school’s board of trustees decided against changing policies affecting school employees, according to a statement issued late last month.
According to the statement, the policy “continues to reflect a traditional view on biblical marriage and sexuality, as an expression of long-held church teaching and biblical interpretation.”
Students have been holding a sit-in protest in Menjares’ office every day for the past three weeks, and have told the Board of Trustees that they must resign by July 1 or face legal action.
Lugos, who was present this week, stated that students and alumni were considering suing the trustees for breach of fiduciary duty, claiming that they had harmed the school’s reputation.
Title IX, which was signed into law in 1972, was intended to provide women with equal access to education and athletics as their male counterparts at publicly funded universities. In 2010, the Obama administration issued guidance expanding Title IX protections to LGBTQ students, which was rescinded by then-President Donald Trump and reinstated by President Joe Biden.
The Portland-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project filed the lawsuit challenging the religious exemption, claiming that it violates due process and equal protection rights. The modern battle, according to Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, is similar to religious exemptions cited by schools that once fought racial integration.
Activists had an uphill battle back then, but they eventually won.
Students at Utah’s Brigham Young University held an unofficial Pride march last June, and students at California’s Fresno Pacific University protested the denial of a Pride club earlier this year.
Jay Fratt, whose stepson graduated from Seattle Pacific on Sunday, said he and other parents were perplexed when some students refused to shake Menjares’ hand while others handed him Pride flags. After learning what the students were protesting about, Fratt said they have a valid point and call into question the university’s policy, which he said he was unaware of until this week.
Lugos was also drawn to the school’s quality and music therapy program, and she was encouraged to see the university tout diversity before enrolling.
While Lugos and her classmates have been fighting the university’s policies, she says they’ve received pushback from other students, including some who have encouraged them to leave, and one incident in which a man delivered a homophobic book to her and her fellow student leaders and made a threatening comment.