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An unjust decision reversed

A school board will end its discrimination against a Christian university

Arizona Christian University Alliance Defending Freedom

An unjust decision reversed
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In the spring of 2023, a public school board in Arizona voted unanimously to cancel a Christian university’s student teaching contract with local elementary schools, citing the university’s Christian beliefs. The decision ended an 11-year relationship between Arizona Christian University (ACU) and the Washington Elementary School District (WESD) in Phoenix and Glendale, Ariz.—or so it seemed.

Thankfully, the story didn’t end there. This fall, ACU student teachers will once again return to classrooms in district schools as they have in past years. This positive and prompt resolution is a result of this Christian university’s record of serving the district, campus leadership’s action to reverse an unjust decision, and the campus community’s commitment to pray for resolution.

Over the years, ACU student teachers have engaged their calling to education by serving in local public school classrooms. “Our university students pursuing teaching careers bring respect, kindness, and excellence to the elementary classrooms,” said Dr. Linnea Lyding, assistant dean of ACU’s school of education. At a time when many teachers have been stretched thin and some risk burning out, support from new recruits eager to serve in the profession would seem to be a welcome addition—and in fact they were welcome in district schools. No complaints had been lodged about ACU student teachers’ performance and no evidence was given that any of them had disregarded local school policies.

What did prove unsatisfactory to the school board were the Christian commitments of ACU. During the Feb. 23 meeting at which the board voted to discontinue working with ACU, several members identified the university’s Christian faith as the reason for their disapproval. Explicit objections were raised against ACU’s commitment to Christianity and its intention to approach all of life with a “Biblical lens.” The university’s support for “traditional sexual morality and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman” was a particular source of consternation during the deliberation. Board members alleged that student teachers associated with an institution holding such views would lead some students to feel that they “could not be safe in this school district.”

In this instance, courage called for taking a legal stand against an unjust decision.

In recent years, ACU leadership has anticipated that the institution’s Christian confession could lead to conflicts in an increasingly pluralistic culture. They have prepared faculty and students to count the cost of standing by their convictions. To that end, by its own pledge the university aspires to be “courageously Christian.”

In this instance, courage called for taking a legal stand against an unjust decision. The school board’s adverse action citing the university’s Christian confession represented unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Working with attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, ACU filed a lawsuit with the goal of reversing the board’s action.

That goal was accomplished. The legal complaint prompted the school board to revisit the issue in a subsequent meeting in early May. On reconsideration, the board voted to reinstate the ACU contract with the Washington Elementary School District. Within eight weeks of the initial vote canceling its standing contract, ACU had a new, stronger five-year agreement for student teachers to continue serving in the school district. Meanwhile the school board agreed to pay attorney fees and settle the matter.

Back in the spring when news of the initial vote reached ACU, university leaders communicated to the campus community that their response would be grounded in prayer, including for those opposing the university. They invited Christians in the community to pray with them for a positive resolution to the conflict, and many did so.

The swift, successful ending to the conflict is an important example for us all. Arizona Christian University knew why and how to stand by its commitment to serve on the basis of its Christian convictions. Wisdom of that sort will be critical for other Christian schools and ministries as similar cultural conflicts arise elsewhere.

Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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