(RNS) — For 11 years, dozens of education students at Arizona Christian University, a private school in Glendale, Arizona, have gained teaching experience thanks to a student teaching program with the local public school district.
But last month the board of the Washington Elementary School District, the largest in the state, serving more than 25,000 students in 33 schools, unanimously voted to terminate its relationship with Arizona Christian. The district’s five-member board said their decision was based on the university’s “strong” anti-LGBTQ stance.
But in a lawsuit filed by the university Thursday (March 9), Arizona Christian claims that the school district was motivated by anti-religious bias, charging that the district has violated the university’s constitutional rights as well as Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act. The suit names the district’s board members as defendants as well as the district.
According to the lawsuit, the district has hired at least 17 Arizona Christian education students over the 11 years the program has been in operation. The suit claims the district has never made a complaint about an Arizona Christian student or alumnus.
“What happened here is students are losing out on opportunities, and they’re frankly being punished because of their religious beliefs,” Jake Reed, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the university, told Religion News Service.
“Here the school district is only further hurting its own students by cutting off the stream of teachers who have consistently showed excellent service in the school district,” Reed said, noting that elementary schools across the U.S. are facing a teacher shortage.
In a statement made last week, district Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley argued that the decision wasn’t about religious discrimination.
“While we recognize the right of individuals to practice their faith, public schools are secular institutions. To that end, the board unanimously voted to discontinue its partnership with Arizona Christian University (ACU) whose policies do not align with our commitment to create a safe place for our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and community,” the statement said. “This is not a rejection of any particular faith as we remain open to partnering with faith-based organizations that share our commitment to equity & inclusion.”
A local television station, ABC15, reported Thursday that more than two dozen staffers had resigned from the Washington Elementary School District but could not confirm why the staffers resigned.
At the February meeting, board members cited the school’s religious mission — including its desire to promote “biblically informed values” like “traditional sexual morality and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman,” as a reason to cut ties with the university.
“If we’re bringing people in whose mission … is to influence people to be biblically minded, how does that hold space for people of other faiths? How does that hold space for our members of the LGBT community?” asked board member Tamillia Valenzuela, who noted that three of the board members are members of the LGBTQ community.
“For me this is not a concern about Christianity,” Gomez-Whaley said at the February meeting. “For me my pause is … this particular institution’s strong anti-LGBTQ stance and their strong belief that you believe this to your core and you take it out into the world.”
The lawsuit states that the university believes in treating every person with love and respect, regardless of their beliefs or identity, and that it instructs its staff and students to “respect and abide by the policies of the school districts it cooperates with.”
It also says the district’s decision harms the school by forcing the university and its students to choose between its partnership with the district and its religious beliefs.
Linnea Lyding, dean of the Shelly Roden School of Education and the School of Arts, Science & Humanities at ACU, said in a press release that the university’s education students bring respect and kindness to the classroom: “We certainly hope we can continue our partnership with this district for the benefit of the elementary children in our community and for our student-teachers.”