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AZ school district unlawfully drops student-teachers because they attend Christian university

ADF attorneys represent Arizona Christian University in federal lawsuit against Washington Elementary School District, board members

Thursday, Mar 9, 2023

PHOENIX – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Arizona Christian University filed suit Thursday against Washington Elementary School District for permanently cutting ties with the university because of its religious beliefs. For the past 11 years, Arizona Christian University and Washington Elementary School District, the largest elementary school district in Arizona serving Phoenix and Glendale, 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 two weeks ago 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 violates 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 is in blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution, not to mention state law that protects ACU’s religious freedom,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman, vice president of U.S. litigation. “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.”

“At a time when there is a critical shortage of qualified, caring teachers, Washington Elementary School District officials are choosing their own political ideologies over the needs of elementary children,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “Not only are school officials doing a tremendous disservice to Phoenix and Glendale families by depriving their kids of much-needed teaching assistance, they are also violating the First Amendment and state law, by depriving ACU students, because of their faith, the opportunity to partner with the school district.”

Through its partnership with Washington Elementary School District, ACU’s students were able to obtain necessary real-world experience in order to graduate, and the school district benefited by having additional, free teaching assistance. In fact, the school district has hired several ACU graduates who previously student-taught in one of its schools.

At a Feb. 23 school district board meeting, all five board members voted unanimously to terminate the district’s relationship with ACU because of its religious beliefs. The lawsuit notes that school district officials showed blatant hostility to those 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.

“For over a decade, Arizona Christian University’s Elementary Education programs have happily served children in the Phoenix and Glendale communities in partnership with Washington Elementary School District. Our university students pursuing teaching careers bring respect, kindness, and excellence to the elementary classrooms,” said Dr. Linnea Lyding, Dean of the Shelly Roden School of Education and the School of Arts, Science & Humanities at ACU. “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.”

ADF attorneys filed Arizona Christian University v. Washington Elementary School District in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

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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