An associate professor of nursing at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) filed a lawsuit this week accusing the private Christian university of discriminating against him and denying him job opportunities because of his sexual orientation.
Jéaux Rinedahl, who teaches in SPU’s Lydia Green Nursing Program at the School of Health Sciences and has nearly 40 years of experience in the health care industry, alleged in the lawsuit when he applied for a full-time position as an Associate Nursing Professor, the university turned his down Application because he’s gay.
The Queen Anne SPU told Rinedahl that he could continue teaching as a part-time teacher, but the complaint indicated that he was not eligible for the full-time position.
“Despite the equality that the courts recognized when they found that gay men and women cannot be discriminated against, it breaks my heart that the SPU still treats us differently from everyone else who teaches at the university” said Rinedahl in a statement.
The university responded in a statement Thursday but did not go into details of the lawsuit, saying it is “still investigating the facts of this case”.
“We are grateful for Mr. Rinedahl’s work with our students and for his service to Seattle Pacific University,” it began.
“We recognize that Mr. Rinedahl’s lawsuit raises questions of Christian practice that are hotly debated throughout the global church,” the university continued. “As a Christian university affiliated with the Free Methodist Church and employing individuals from different Christian denominations, we recognize that different beliefs exist within different denominations, including our own. The importance and complexity of this topic will continue to affect the conversations as we strive to respect and care for all members of our community. “
Rinedahl said in a phone interview this week that he moved to SPU’s additional faculty to teach courses in community health in April 2020 for the coming spring quarter. He served as the liaison for the graduates of senior nursing students who worked on-site and became a virtual class teacher due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When he saw the full-time position advertised in May, he was thrilled.
“It was a dream come true,” said Rinedahl. “What I’ve been looking for my entire career.”
The then-dean of the school’s nursing program encouraged him to apply, but Rinedahl said she called about a month later to tell him that the university had rejected his application for a reason: “Because you are not straight.”
“She actually said that,” said Rinedahl. “I was shocked.”
He added, “I had to sit down because I was weak and dizzy. I had been preparing for this opportunity for years. … I wanted to do that for the rest of my career until retirement, and in one sentence it was gone. “
Rinedahl said the dean, who has now been promoted to interim dean of the School of Health Sciences, added that in order to be employed full-time, he would have to sign a statement declaring he was heterosexual.
“I couldn’t,” said Rinedahl.
The university has since stated that employees do not need to sign such a declaration.
“The university does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, but has religious behavioral expectations for regular faculty and staff positions,” said the SPU, but did not go into detail.
Despite the school’s decision, Rinedahl said he had been “repeatedly” invited to continue teaching nursing courses in the fall. He turned it down, citing his commitment to his new full-time job – a role in the nursing field – but said he will return to teach part-time in the spring.
“It’s a tough decision to think about returning to an employer who simply hates you for who you are and what you stand for and what has nothing to do with your personality or performance,” he said.
But ultimately, he said, he doesn’t want to abandon his students and still teach full-time.
“I love teaching,” he said. “Students will suffer from a dedicated instructor who takes care of them. … And it would be a shame on her. “
Rinedahl isn’t the only educator in the Seattle area in recent years to claim discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace.
In 2014, Eastside Catholic High School’s assistant principal, Mark Zmuda, was forced to resign after school officials found out he had married his male partner. At least five teachers left King’s High School in Shoreline in 2019 to protest the anti-gay language. This was done in a new policy from CRISTA Ministries, King’s parent organization. And last February, two teachers at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien said they were being forced to quit because of their same-sex relationships.
Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled that an important provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as Title VII, which prohibits gender discrimination in the workplace, includes prejudice based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other things.
Rinedahl’s attorneys do not file the lawsuit under Title VII, but instead claim the university violates state and city anti-discrimination laws. Dan Kalish, one of Rinedahl’s attorneys, along with Erin Norgaard and Brian Dolman of HKM Employment Attorneys, said he hadn’t heard from SPU until Wednesday afternoon.
Kalish said the university could respond by saying it complies with a ministerial exception that courts say allows religious institutions to circumvent anti-discrimination laws when hiring ministers. The question then is often: “Who qualifies as a minister?”
Not Rinedahl, argues Kalish.
The full-time position Rinedahl applied for is a non-ministerial teaching position, he added. Nursing professors are not required to provide ministerial services, the complaint states. A copy of the job description for the full-time position that does not include religious requirements is attached to the complaint.
The law firm also created a petition this week on Rinedahl’s behalf asking the community to ask the SPU to hire him full-time. More than 1,700 signatures had been collected by Thursday evening.
Washington University law professor Peter Nicolas, who specializes in LGBTQ + rights and religion, among other things, said the SPU can argue in court that they have religious rights under the First Amendment that go beyond anti-discrimination laws.
“This is the area that is most unsettled and will likely have to be resolved by the (US) Supreme Court at some point,” wrote Nicolas in an email.
“The success of the lawsuit depends on the SPU’s allegations that they are under a religious exemption under state law and / or the first amendment,” he wrote in an email. “That the position is about nursing and not about theology makes the defense difficult.”
The news of Rinedahl’s lawsuit has added to the frustration some students have built for years, said Alex Moore, a SPU senior studying social justice and cultural studies. She is openly queer, she said, saying the anti-LGBTQ + position perceived by the government is “something one gets to know well”.
“It’s nothing new,” Moore said, adding that the students have worked “long” to change the SPU’s language, policies and practices regarding LGBTQ + students and staff. But Rinedahl’s complaint gives them hope, she said.
“I was excited that this professor was brave enough to file a lawsuit,” said Moore. “What’s great about that is that we now have a little more legal base. (SPU) probably pays more attention to the students who vocalize this.”
Moore and six other students are planning a demonstration outside SPU President Dan Martin’s residence on campus on Friday afternoon, hoping it will attract other students, faculty, and community members.
“It will be a socially distant protest and a party,” said Moore. “To celebrate LGTBQ students and to support Professor Rinedahl.”
Material from the Seattle Times archives was used in this story.