Arizona school board settles religious discrimination lawsuit
The school district will continue to allow student teachers from Christian university
In an about-face, a Glendale, Ariz., school district will continue to allow students from Christian university to fulfill student teaching requirements in the district’s 32 elementary and middle schools. Board members Wednesday approved settlement of a lawsuit brought by Arizona Christian University after a firestorm of criticism of the board’s decision from teachers, parents, and community leaders at a March board meeting.
Under the settlement agreement made public Thursday afternoon, the Washington District School Governing Board agreed to sign a new five-year contract with ACU, subject to renewal each year, and pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees. The board voted on the settlement after meeting for over an hour with a school attorney behind closed doors Wednesday.
In a February meeting, the five-member school board unanimously agreed to cut ties with the university over its religious views after an 11-year partnership. While three members of the board identify as LGBT, one member’s comments stood out. Tamillia Valenzuela said having ACU student teachers at schools would make students feel “unsafe.” She called the university’s Biblical statements on marriage and sexuality “openly bigoted.”
Valenzuela’s hostility to the school’s religious beliefs didn’t play well at a subsequent March 9 meeting that attracted an overflow crowd, with most attendees opposed to the board’s decision to terminate the contract. That same day, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of ACU, further turning up the heat.
At an April 18 status conference, U.S. District Judge Steven P. Logan pushed the parties toward an early resolution of the lawsuit, accelerating the case and setting trial for May 24—a mere 10 weeks after the filing of the lawsuit.
That’s extremely unusual, said Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jake Reed. “[A] case typically takes one to two years, [when] he wanted everything to be done within two months, which is unheard of,” he said. “I think that’s what prompted reaching a resolution.”
Reed said board members’ animosity toward the school’s religious beliefs matches with a broader cultural animosity toward traditional beliefs of all religions. But he said the board took it even further. “So it is a little surprising that you have the government—government officials—openly violating the Constitution by discriminating [against] people and a university with religious beliefs,” he said.
Unlike the initial vote to cut ties with the university, the vote approving the settlement wasn’t unanimous. Four members agreed to settle, but the university’s most vocal critic, Valenzuela, held out and did not sign it. The school board did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.
“This is a complete vindication of the rights of our students to be able to participate as student teachers in a public school district without fear of religious discrimination,” ACU President Len Munsil said in a statement issued Thursday. “We obtained everything we wanted in this new agreement, without any sacrifice or compromise to our beliefs and our university’s religious purpose.”
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