Arizona school district boots Christian student teachers
Board members end a contract with a religious university, sparking backlash
At a packed Glendale, Ariz., school board meeting Thursday evening, teacher Amy McFarlane stepped to the podium and echoed what many other speakers said.
“This is the message that you and your followers send into all of our Christian community,” said McFarlane. “Whether you are a Christian, a Christian worker, a parent, or a student, the Washington Elementary School District does not have a place for you.”
Eighty members of the public crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the board meeting room. Some hissed and booed speakers, while others cheered. Hundreds waited outside, where additional security patrolled in a chill desert evening. More than once, board members stopped speakers for running over their allotted two-minute time or making personal attacks on board members.
On Feb. 23, the Washington District School Governing Board voted unanimously to cut ties with Arizona Christian University (ACU) over its religious beliefs. Of the 32 speakers allowed to address the board at last week’s meeting, a majority opposed the board’s action.
For 11 years, the university partnered with the school district to supply student teachers for the district’s 32 elementary and middle schools. Arizona Christian University filed a federal lawsuit against the district on Thursday, seeking reinstatement of the contract and damages over constitutional violations.
Jeff Caldwell blamed the school board for what he said could be a multimillion-dollar case. “Instead of money going into the classroom, it’s going to go into the legal system,” he told the board. “And I just want to bring up that it was unconstitutional what you guys did, and it is unacceptable.”
Three of the five members of the board identify as LGBT. At the Feb. 23 meeting rescinding the contract, board member Tamillia Valenzuela said the mere presence of ACU student teachers would make some students—and her—feel “unsafe.” She cited an ACU website statement of belief in the “centrality of family, traditional sexual morality, and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.”
At Thursday’s school board meeting, Valenzuela—who defines herself as a “bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina”—called the university’s policies “openly bigoted,” saying, “I will not sit here as a member of the community and let our children be subjected to that,” she said.
According to the complaint filed in federal court, over the last 11 years, 25 of the university’s students served as student teachers in district schools, and 17 have been hired by the school district. During that time, the lawsuit contends, there were no complaints or any evidence that any ACU student teacher improperly proselytized or taught Christian beliefs to any student. Students who hoped to fulfill college requirements in the district’s schools are now scrambling to find alternatives—simply because of their religion.
Jeremiah Galus, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing the school, called out the school board for blatant religious discrimination. “The Supreme Court has made clear many times that government officials cannot single out particular religious beliefs for worse treatment,” he said.
Galus explained that ACU bases its complaint on the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and its establishment clause. “If you listen to the initial board meeting, the board members … tried to make clear that they don’t have problems with Christians,” he said. “They just have problems with Christians that hold the beliefs that Arizona Christian University and its students hold.” That’s a choice governmental officials don’t get to make, he said. “This is a government entity that is bound by the First Amendment, and the board members have lost sight of that.”
In a statement issued Thursday, Republican state Sen. Anthony Kern chastised the board for creating a hostile work environment for many staff.
“Since this began, I’ve spoken with teachers in the Washington Elementary School District who feel they’re being discriminated against and are now afraid of losing their jobs,” said Kern. “We have a shortage of teachers in Arizona, yet this board is focused on keeping future educators out of the classroom.”
Galus anticipates filing a motion in the near future seeking a temporary reversal of the board’s action and reinstatement of the contract with ACU while the case is litigated. But one thing is for sure: The desert environment is now even pricklier, according to Erica Smith, a health technician at Phoenix’s Mountain Sky Junior High School who spoke at Thursday’s meeting.
“Terminating the contract has created disunity and stirs up conversations that portray you in a negative light,” said Smith. “Is that what you wanted?”
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