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Arizona Christian University v. Washington Elementary School District

Description:  For the past 11 years, Arizona Christian University and Washington Elementary School District have had a mutually beneficial partnership where students in the university’s elementary educational program would student-teach and shadow teachers in the school district. That partnership, however, ended abruptly in February 2023 when the school district terminated its relationship with ACU because of the university’s religious beliefs on biblical marriage and sexuality even though no complaints had been made about an Arizona Christian student or alumnus. The school district’s decision to revoke its relationship and cease all future agreements with the school because of its religious status and beliefs violated the university’s constitutionally protected freedoms.

Arizona Christian University sign
Thursday, May 4, 2023

PHOENIX – Two months after Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys sued the Phoenix-area Washington Elementary School District for unlawfully cutting ties with Arizona Christian University because of its religious beliefs, the district’s board voted Wednesday night to enter a new agreement allowing ACU students to teach in the district once again. As part of the settlement in Arizona Christian University v. Washington Elementary School District, the district also agreed to pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees.

ADF attorneys representing ACU filed the federal lawsuit in March after the school district—the largest elementary school district in Arizona, serving Phoenix and Glendale—decided it no longer wanted to partner with ACU because of the university’s religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality, terminating the relationship without citing any complaint or issue regarding an ACU student or alumnus. The lawsuit explained that the district’s decision to end its relationship with the school because of its religious status and beliefs violated the university’s constitutionally protected freedoms.

“By discriminating against Arizona Christian University and denying it an opportunity to participate in the student-teacher program because of its religious status and beliefs, the school district was in blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution, not to mention state law that protects ACU’s religious freedom,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman, who argued in federal district court on behalf of ACU. “At a time when a critical shortage of qualified, caring teachers exists, the Washington Elementary School District board did the right thing by prioritizing the needs of elementary school children and agreeing to partner once again with ACU’s student-teachers.”

“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,” said ACU President Len Munsil. “We obtained everything we wanted in this new agreement, without any sacrifice or compromise to our beliefs and our university’s religious purpose. We look forward to a continued beneficial partnership that serves ACU student-teachers and the students, faculty, and staff of the WESD. And we are so grateful for the team at Alliance Defending Freedom for their excellent advocacy for our religious freedoms.”

For the past 11 years, ACU and the school district had a mutually beneficial partnership, where students in the university’s elementary education program would student-teach and shadow teachers. ACU’s students were able to obtain necessary real-world experience, and the school district benefited by having additional, free teaching assistance.

However, at a Feb. 23 school district board meeting, all five board members voted unanimously to terminate the district’s relationship with ACU. The lawsuit noted that school district officials showed blatant hostility to ACU’s beliefs, questioning how one could “be committed to Jesus Christ” and yet, at the same time, respect LGBTQ students and board members. One board member even stated that the mere presence of ACU student-teachers would make some students—and herself—feel “unsafe.” Another stated she was “embarrassed” that she allowed the school district’s partnership with ACU to continue for so long.

The new student placement agreement allows for an additional five years, to be renewed annually. In light of the favorable settlement, ADF attorneys representing ACU filed a voluntary dismissal of its case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Thursday. ADF will monitor agreement renewals to ensure the district takes no discriminatory action again in the future.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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ABOUT David Cortman

David A. Cortman serves as senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with Alliance Defending Freedom. He has been practicing law since 1996, and currently supervises a team of over 40 attorneys and legal staff who specialize in constitutional law, focusing on religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Cortman has litigated hundreds of constitutional law cases including two victories at the U.S. Supreme Court. In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, he secured a 7-2 victory that overturned Missouri’s denial of a religious school’s participation in a state funding program. Cortman also argued Reed v. Town of Gilbert, securing a 9-0 ruling that prohibits the government from discriminating against religious speech. A member of the bar in Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and the District of Columbia, he is also admitted to practice in over two dozen federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Cortman obtained his J.D. magna cum laude from Regent University School of Law.