A Christian university’s case against a Phoenix school district over alleged religious discrimination got a hearing on Tuesday.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Arizona Christian University (ACU) against the Washington Elementary School District (WESD), spoke with AZ Free News after the hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction in the Arizona District Court.
ADF lawyer Jake Reed said they felt confident in their legal arguments and that the judge that heard the case, Steven Logan, was well-versed on the arguments ahead of Tuesday’s hearings. Reed said they’re hoping for a ruling within the next few weeks, considering ACU needs to place their student teachers for the upcoming year by the end of this semester.
“This is a pretty simple case about religious discrimination,” said Reed. “A public body is telling a university they can’t place their teachers because of their religious faith.”
WESD terminated its contract with ACU in February. Its governing board members cited ACU’s Christianity as a principal factor for their decision. Leading on the effort was board member Tamillia Valenzuela, who said that ACU’s Biblical perspective that traditional sexual morality and the standard of marriage between one man and one woman directly opposed her and other LGBTQ+ community members. Valenzuela received support from fellow board members Kyle Clayton and Nikki Gomez-Whaley.
“[W]hen I went and looked into not only [ACU’s] core values but then the statement of faith that they ask their students to sign and live by, what gave me pause was it’s not just teaching but it’s teaching as they say with a Biblical lens, with a proselytizing is embedded into how they teach, and you know, I just don’t believe that belongs in schools,” said Clayton. “I would never want, you know, my son to talk about his two dads and be shamed by a teacher who believed a certain way and is at a school that demands that they, you know, teach through [a] Biblical lens.”
Gomez-Whaley said she would be open to those who claimed to be Christians who were accepting of LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
“[E]ven though [ACU] may not do anything illegal where they are preaching or using Bible verses, I do believe that we owe it to especially all of our students when we’re working in equity but especially our LGBTQ students and staff who are under fire who are not protected, and who we have already pledged to support,” said Gomez-Whaley. “We cannot continue to align ourselves with organizations that starkly contrast our values and say that we legitimately care about diversity, equity, and inclusion and that we legitimately care about all of our families.”
Reed shared that in the 11 years of WESD and ACU’s relationship, there were well over 100 students placed as either student teachers or in teacher shadowing positions. Of those students, 17 went on to be hired by WESD.
When asked whether WESD could attempt religious discrimination in future contracting decisions under the guise of other reasons, Reed said that those incidents, if they were to occur, would have to be scrutinized.
“The government can’t treat certain people worse than everyone else. Students shouldn’t be denied opportunities because of their religious beliefs,” said Reed. “The government can’t pick and choose what beliefs they allow.”
WESD proposed to settle by extending a separate agreement with ACU for one more year — but not the agreement at issue.
Ahead of the hearing the judge denied an amicus brief filed last week by The Goldwater Institute, a public policy research and litigation organization. Logan stated in his order that the WESD didn’t consent to the brief and that the Goldwater Institute didn’t present relevant matters that hadn’t already or couldn’t be brought to the court by either party.
“The parties’ briefing on Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction is complete, thorough, and more than sufficient for this Court to make a ruling,” wrote Logan.
The Goldwater Institute announced on Tuesday that they submitted a supportive brief in a lawsuit accusing Washington Elementary School District (WESD) of discriminating against Christians.
WESD decided to end its contract with Arizona Christian University (ACU) earlier this year over the school’s religious beliefs. The lawsuit was filed initially by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of ACU early last month.
WESD is the largest elementary school district in the state, and had partnered with ACU for 11 years without issue, according to court documents.
In their press release, the Goldwater Institute claimed that WESD violated the constitutional rights of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association for both ACU and its students to free speech. The Goldwater Institute further claimed that WESD’s actions ran afoul of the Arizona Constitution’s “religious test” clauses, which prohibit the government from discriminating based on religion when making hiring decisions.
The organization also pointed out that WESD committed the alleged discrimination despite grappling with an ongoing, historic teacher shortage like other districts.
In the Goldwater Institute’s amicus, or “friend-of-the-court,” brief, the organization said that WESD had unconstitutionally conditioned employment based on ACU’s faith.
“Defendants’ hostility toward Christians is apparently so intense that they cut off a long-standing teacher training program during an historic nationwide teacher shortage, simply because the teachers attended Arizona Christian University (ACU)—a school that espouses traditional Christian beliefs on its website,” said the organization.
ACU believes in Biblical teachings on marriage and sexuality, including 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,” per court filings.
AZ Free News first broke the story about WESD’s alleged discrimination. The ultimate decision to cut ties with ACU traces back to public comments from WESD Governing Board Member Tamillia Valenzuela.
Valenzuela — a self-described neurodivergent, queer furry — declared during a board meeting that ACU’s mission of prioritizing Jesus Christ’s teachings didn’t align with WESD priorities. In previous board meetings, Valenzuela has decried any Christian presence at WESD. In contemplating whether to continue the district’s contract with Grand Canyon University (GCU), Valenzuela insisted that WESD should cut ties there as well due to the university being a private Christian institution.
“I am wondering if there’s other options available, one so we are not actively engaging with an institution that’s causing harm and also so we can have options that are not based on a certain faith,” said Valenzuela.
ADF has asked for a preliminary injunction in the case. Their filing outlined various grievances against WESD in regard to their opposition against ACU for its religious beliefs. This included WESD governing board member remarks accusing ACU student teachers of being “openly bigoted,” causing LGBTQ+ people to feel “unsafe.”
“The School District’s policy therefore is loud and clear: Christians with disfavored beliefs are neither welcome nor allowed to serve in the District,” stated ADF.
There will be oral arguments in the case, Arizona Christian University v. Washington Elementary School District, next Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. at the Sandra Day O’Connor courthouse.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has sued the Washington Elementary School District (WESD), alleging unconstitutional discrimination against Christians.
ADF filed the lawsuit on Thursday against WESD, claiming that the district’s recent decision to end a contract with Arizona Christian University (ACU) due to its religious beliefs on biblical marriage and sexuality constituted unlawful discrimination.
In a press release, ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, claimed that WESD violated both the U.S. Constitution and state law by ending its contract with ACU based on the university’s religious beliefs.
“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,” said Cortman.
AZ Free News first broke the story about WESD’s alleged discrimination last week, documenting how WESD Governing Board Member Tamillia Valenzuela, a self-identified neurodivergent queer furry, led a crusade to purge Christians from WESD.
Valenzuela said during the board’s Feb. 23 meeting that ACU’s mission to prioritize the teachings of Jesus Christ weren’t aligned with WESD priorities. WESD had contracted with ACU to have university students complete their student teaching and practical coursework at one of WESD’s campuses. All five of the governing board members voted to terminate WESD’s contract with ACU. 16 ACU students were involved with WESD at the time.
In January, Valenzuela also condemned the district for allowing Grand Canyon University (GCU) students to serve as interns with WESD. GCU is a private Christian university. Unlike with ACU, WESD opted to maintain its contract with GCU.
The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) condemned WESD’s decision to terminate its contract with ACU.
“Terminating a contract based on religious practices is unacceptable. The teachers from ACU sign a contract that adheres to the district’s guidelines, and it’s ill-advised to cut off an educator pipeline as our schools struggle with staffing,” stated ADE.
Social justice activists rallied around Valenzuela, issuing a call to action for community members to wear cat ears to Thursday’s board meeting.
Earlier this week, Democratic legislators also issued their support for Valenzuela. The Democrats claimed that criticisms of WESD and Valenzuela were coordinated by Republicans and intended to “demonize and demoralize school leaders, LGBTQ+ students, and our public school system.” The Democrats also claimed that criticisms of the district and Valenzuela would result in violence against officials and even students.
The Democrats’ statement didn’t address the concerns that WESD’s actions resulted in potentially unlawful religious discrimination against Christians.
Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ), an anti-school choice teachers’ union activist group, helped get Valenzuela elected to WESD’s board last year.
During Thursday’s board meeting, Valenzuela claimed that lawmakers were bullying LGBTQ+ students by not accepting their lifestyles. Valenzuela claimed that realizing alternative sexualities constituted the fullest realization of humanity.
“There is a difference between acceptance and tolerance, and members of our society have been merely accepted, merely tolerated for their existence. We have watched as our children have been bullied for having autonomy,” said Valenzuela. “Know what Christ’s teachings were: it was love, it was acceptance. It was not cursing people out on Facebook and Twitter, it was not spreading misinformation.”
Valenzuela’s remarks elicited a mixed chorus of clapping and boos.
At a time when one-fourth of all educator positions are vacant statewide, one Arizona school board has voted to reduce the number of university students pursuing education degrees who can do their on-site training in their district.
Washington Elementary School District serves a diverse population of K-8 students in north central Phoenix and east Glendale. It is the largest elementary school district in Arizona with 32 in-class schools and one online school, and has a highly promoted districtwide LGTBQ-acceptance policy.
For more than a decade, several degree students from Arizona Christian University (ACU) have done their student teaching and other practical coursework at one of WESD’s campuses. But in recent weeks, Tamillia Valenzuela has twice urged her fellow four WESD board members to end the district’s arrangement with ACU and another area university.
During a Feb. 23 board meeting, Valenzuela expressed concern that ACU’s mission prioritizes the teachings of Jesus Christ, values which she does not believe are “aligned with” WESD’s priorities. She said she was “really disheartened” to see district staff was asking to renew its long-running arrangement with ACU.
Valenzuela, who describes herself on the WESD website as a bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina, cited no documented examples of how any WESD student, parent, or teacher has been negatively impacted over the last decade by the personal Christian values of any ACU student teacher.
However, the board voted 5 to 0 to end its arrangement with ACU at the completion of this school year. About 16 ACU students are currently involved with WESD.
Although several of the board members expressed concern with what they see as ACU’s rigid anti-LGBTQ philosophy, it was Valenzuela’s comments that were interpreted by many parents as pushing “no Christians welcomed” agenda for WESD.
Two WESD parents spoke to AZ Free News on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation against their children; both provided documentation of having students currently enrolled in the district.
“Clearly Ms. Valenzuela believes having Christians involved at Washington Elementary’s schools is unacceptable, whether those people are from Arizona Christian University or simply Christians in general,” one parent said. “Ms. Valenzuela actually said she has personal concerns with feeling ‘safe’ within WESD due to the presence of devout believers in Jesus Christ. What’s next? A religious litmus test for public school employees and teachers?”
The other parent found Valenzuela’s comments about values to be highly hypocritical.
“Tamillia wants to deny student teaching opportunities to ACU students because of her personal dislike of the university’s religious tenets,” the parent noted. “She cannot point us to one incident in all of these years in which any university student shirked their duties toward any WESD student. Yet Tamillia openly wants to discriminate against Christians. Really, who has the values problem?”
At a Jan. 12 board meeting, Valenzuela led a similar attack on the District’s practice of having students from the Grand Canyon University (GCU) social work program serve as interns at various WESD campuses. GCU, based in Phoenix, is one of the largest private Christian universities in the world.
Valenzuela alleged that GCU as an institution has acted in a harmful manner to a low-income community, and thus is not a good philosophical fit for WESD to partner with on social work and mental health. She also expressed concern with having Christian organizations affiliated with the district.
“I am wondering if there’s other options available, one so we are not actively engaging with an institution that’s causing harm and also so we can have options that are not based on a certain faith,” she said.
Lisa Mora, WESD’s assistant superintendent, pointed out there are a limited number of accredited social work university programs for WESD to work with. Many of them are offered through private colleges, and if district officials wish to continue prioritizing social and emotional services for students, “these universities have the ability to work with us directly.”
Valenzuela was the only “no” vote on renewing the relationship with GCU.
Terri Jo Neff is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or send her news tips here.