Washington Elementary School District No. 6 (WESD) in Glendale terminated the contract of Arizona Christian University (ACU) to provide student teachers last month, despite an ongoing teacher shortage, citing the religious tenets of the university as the reason. In response, The Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of the ACU on March 9, demanding multiple types of damages, including punitive.
The suit alleges a violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. It asserts that “Arizona Christian and its students do not share religious messages and beliefs within its student teacher programs with local public Schools.”
As a result of terminating the contract, 66 teachers have resigned or will not be returning next year in protest. The contract was in place for 11 years, with 25 students participating and at least 17 hired on as full-time teachers after graduating. None of the student-teachers ever received a complaint, the lawsuit says.
In addition to making remarks about ACU’s religious tenets, some school board members cited its Statement of Faith. The complaint noted that ACU requires students to sign its Statement of Faith, which represents “Arizona Christian’s sincerely held beliefs about biblical marriage and sexuality, including the beliefs that God created man and woman in His image and likeness, that God wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female, and that God intends sexual intimacy to occur only between a man and woman who are married to each other.”
The lawsuit stated, “The Supreme Court has … ‘repeatedly held’ that the government ‘violates the Free Exercise Clause when it excludes religious observers from otherwise available public benefits,’” citing the 2022 case Carson v. Makin. This violation of the student teachers’ constitutional rights “unquestionably” causes them “irreparable injury,” the lawsuit said, citing the 2022 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in Riley’s Am. Heritage Farms v. Elsasser.
The termination was not “neutral” as required by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the complaint alleged, instead ending the contract “precisely because of their religious status and beliefs.” It also cited the Arizona Constitution’s similar Free Exercise clause.
The university contended that comments made by the board members about ACU showed “religious hostility,” which is “per se unconstitutional.” The brief cited the 2022 Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Bremerton Sch. Dist., which held, “A plaintiff may also prove a free exercise violation by showing that official expressions of hostility to religion accompany laws or policies burdening religious exercise; in cases like that we have set aside such policies without further inquiry.”
The complaint alleged that WESD’s actions violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause by discriminating on the basis of religion. Another claim by ACU was that the First Amendment rights of speech and expression were violated since WESD is“forc[ing] Arizona Christian and its students to engage in speech and expression that they do not wish to convey.” The ACU alleged that the termination was retaliation against the university for exercising those rights.
ACU asserted that WESD violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by favoring one religious denomination over another. The complaint cited a statement by a board member speaking positively about “Christian denominations who are LGBTQ friendly.”
The complaint also added, “The School District established a preference for ‘Christian denominations who are LGBTQ friendly.’”
The Supreme Court requires the highest level of scrutiny in cases involving alleged government discrimination based on religious status, the complaint said, referencing the 2017 Supreme Court case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. That required “a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored to achieve any purported compelling interest.”
The complaint pointed out that the student teachers saved the district money by working without pay, and several of them were hired as full-time teachers after graduating, having performed well.
During the February 23 board meeting voting to terminate the contract, the complaint observed, the board “disparaged their religious beliefs, questioning how one could ‘be committed to Jesus Christ’ and yet respect LGBTQ students and board members.”
The board members asserted that ACU student teachers would bring their Christian viewpoints into the classroom, the complaint said, quoting three of them.
Board Member Tamillia Valenzuela, who led the effort, said the “mere presence” of the ACU teachers would make some students and herself feel “unsafe.” The complaint quoted Valenzuela asserting that ACU’s Christian principles will be forced on WESD’s students; “proselytizing is embedded into how they teach.”
Valenzuela (pictured above) has described herself as “witchy AF” and “queer AF,” and in her official bio on the WESD website as “neurodivergent.” Harvard Health defines the term, “The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. ”
Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley stated that ACU has a “strong anti-LGBTQ stance and their strong belief that you believe this to your core and you take it out into the world.” She said she was “embarrassed” she allowed the contract to continue. Board Member Kyle Clayton said ACU’s “beliefs ‘gave him pause’ because he ‘just [does not] believe that [those beliefs] belong in schools.’”
In contrast, the complaint said this was incorrect. “Arizona Christian instructs its students and staff not to push their religious beliefs on others while participating in student teacher and practicum arrangements, and to otherwise abide by all policies.” The ACU went on, “Arizona Christian believes it must, and does, respect the wishes and policies of all local school districts it cooperates with, so Arizona Christian instructs all of its students and staff to respect and abide by the policies of the school districts it cooperates with — including the School District.”
The lawsuit notes that ACU’s handbook states the student teachers must “‘[a]bide by the rules and policies of the assigned school,’ ‘[m]aintain a professional attitude with students, families, staff, and administration,’ and ‘[b]e friendly, cooperative, positive, and nonargumentative with all school personnel, parents and students.’”
The lawsuit pointed out that if WESD has a problem with one of ACU’s student teachers, they may terminate the teacher.
“The Agreement further provides that “[e]ither the [school at which the student teacher is placed] or [Arizona Christian] may require withdrawal or dismissal from participation at the [school] of any student teacher whose performance record or conduct does not justify continuance,” it said.
The complaint said, “The School District has never cited any wrongdoing by Arizona Christian students serving the district or complained about the actions, behavior, or statements of such students.”
Also, the suit said there were “zero complaints” of “improperly proselytizing or teaching Arizona Christian’s religious beliefs.”
The complaint cited WESD’s extensive nondiscrimination policy, which includes “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.” It also provides, “A teacher shall not use sectarian or denominational books or teach any sectarian doctrines or conduct religious exercises.”
ACU requires students to teach for at least 405 hours in a public or Christian school in Phoenix. Without teaching experience — either full-time teaching or student teaching — Arizona law will not allow someone to receive a certification in elementary education.
The complaint stated that the termination had caused “reputational harm” to ACU. ACU asked for an injunction to stop the termination, costs, attorney’s fees, and compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Steven P. Logan – an appointee of President Barack Obama. State Senator Anthony Kern (R-Glendale) called on Valenzuela to resign, labeling the termination “absolute discrimination.”
– – –
Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Tamillia Valenzuela” by Washington Elementary School District. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Karen Neoh. CC BY 2.0.