Arizona Christian University (ACU), represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), filed a lawsuit against the Washington Elementary School District (WESD) Thursday, alleging the district discriminated against the school based on its religious beliefs.
“By discriminating against Arizona Christian University and denying it an opportunity to participate in the student teacher program because of its religious status and beliefs, the school district is in blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution, not to mention state law that protects ACU’s religious freedom,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, vice president of U.S. litigation. “Washington Elementary School District officials are causing irreparable harm to ACU every day they force it to choose between its religious beliefs and partnering with the area’s public schools.”
LAWSUIT FILED: Today, we sued an Arizona school district for unconstitutional discrimination against Christian student-teachers. The school board made it clear they were ending the 10-year partnership with Arizona Christian University due to ACU's religious beliefs.
— Alliance Defending Freedom (@ADFLegal) March 9, 2023
As reported by The Arizona Sun Times, the controversy surrounding the WESD broke out following a February 23rd meeting. At this conference, the district governing board unanimously voted to end a contract with ACU, which allowed students from the university to work in WESD classrooms to get teaching experience.
One member, Tamaillia Valenzuela, pointed to the university’s mission statement, which references ACU’s commitment to furthering Christian values. These values include traditional views on marriage between one man and one woman. Valenzuela said that as a member of the LGBTQ community, she would feel “unsafe” with anyone who held these Christian beliefs coming to WESD classrooms. Moreover, WESD Governing Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley said she was “embarrassed” for allowing the contract to exist under her watch.
According to the Arizona School Board Association policies, the board “is committed to a policy of nondiscrimination in relation to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, national origin, and disability.” In the complaint, the plaintiffs argue that ACU students should be aware of this requirement and would therefore understand that they could not use the classroom to force their beliefs on students.
Furthermore, the plaintiffs argue that the WESD discriminated against the ACU for its religious beliefs. For example, the Free Exercise Clause (FEC) of the First Amendment protects American citizens’ rights to practice their religious beliefs and protects them from “unequal treatment.” The plaintiffs argue that the board’s decision does “not serve a compelling governmental interest” and was made solely because of the university’s religious beliefs, thereby violating the FEC.
Moreover, at the meeting, one member mentioned that her problem was not with Christianity specifically, only with Christian denominations that hold an anti-LGBTQ stance. The plaintiffs argued that this language would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which states that a government entity cannot “favor one religion over another.”
Aside from national laws, the university claimed that WESD violated state religious freedom laws. Under Arizona Revised Statute (ARS) § 41-1493.01, the government cannot “substantially burden” a person’s religious exercise, even if the burden is generally applicable. ACU claimed the district’s actions burden it because university students who could have gotten experience with the WESD have now been denied that opportunity.
For relief, the plaintiffs asked the court to declare the district’s actions violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws, order WESD to reinstate the agreement with ACU, and prevent the defendants from any further religious discrimination.
“We certainly hope we can continue our partnership with this district for the benefit of the elementary children in our community and for our student-teachers,” said Dr. Linnea Lyding, dean of the Shelly Roden School of Education and the School of Arts, Science & Humanities at ACU.
As reported by Fox 10, the board met on Thursday and heard heated arguments from community members both for and against the district’s decision.
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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Tamillia Valenzuela” by Washington Elementary School District. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Carol M. Highsmith.