Days after the five-member governing board of the Washington Elementary School District in Arizona voted to ban student-teachers from Arizona Christian University from the district due to their commitment to traditional Christian values, the university’s president has slammed the decision as “wrong” and “unlawful” and pledged to fight back.
“The school board's recent decision to ban ACU students from serving as student teachers was done for one reason only: our university's commitment to our Christian convictions. That's wrong, it’s unlawful, and it will only hurt the district’s students,” ACU President Len Munsil said in a statement to The Christian Post.
“Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are bedrock American principles. We are exploring our options to defend the rights of our students,” he added.
At a board meeting held on Feb. 23, school district officials recommended renewing a partnership with Arizona Christian University education students to engage classes as student-teachers and practicums that had existed for 11 years. The school board members, three of whom identify as members of the LGBT community, opted to nix the agreement, arguing that having student teachers with biblical values in the state’s largest and one of the best elementary school districts would pose too much of a threat to LGBT students.
Munsil, however, said that over the course of ACU’s partnership with the district, they have had no problems. Student teachers from the university have done such a great job, he added, many of them were hired as full-time teachers and administrators asked the university to send them more students because of how well they have done in the classroom.
“For years Arizona Christian University has partnered with the Washington Elementary School District. More than 100 ACU students have served the district, including 25 student teachers, many of whom were hired full time after graduation,” Munsil said. “Administrators have time and again asked us to send more ACU students because of the quality of our students' work and their love and servant's hearts for all.”
It was also noted by school district officials in the Feb. 23 meeting that all student-teachers had to sign legal agreements that prevent them from discriminating against any student.
For the five-member governing board of the school district, though — Nikkie Gomez-Whaley, president; Jenni Abbott-Bayardi, vice president; Kyle Clayton, Tamillia Valenzuela and Lindsey Peterson — the exemplary performance of the student-teachers and the legal agreements were not enough protection.
Valenzuela, who first raised concern about the university’s values, insisted that while she supports religious freedom, and is aware of a current teacher shortage, she cannot support student-teachers with traditional Christian values in the classroom.
“While I full-heartedly believe in religious freedom and people being able to practice whatever faith that they have, I had some … concerns regarding looking at this particular institution,” said Valenzuela, who identifies as a “bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina.”
“I'm going to start with our values. First, our vision in Washington Elementary School District is committed to achieving excellence for every child, every day, every opportunity, every child. When I go to Arizona Christian University's website, and I'm taking this directly from their website, 'above all else, be committed to Jesus Christ, accomplishing His will and advancing His kingdom on earth as in heaven,’” Valenzuela continued.
“Part of the four values [of the school] is 'influence, engage and transform the culture with truth by promoting the biblically informed values that are foundational to Western civilization, including the centrality of family, traditional sexual morality and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.'
“I want to know how bringing people from an institution that is ingrained in their values that will very directly 1) impact three of your board members who are a part of the LGBTQ community. We have added our pronouns at the dais as solidarity, [to] let our LGBT community know that we stand in making sure that they feel protected. Are we only performing performative solidarity? Or are we going to dig deep, and actually look at the partnerships that we're doing?” she asked.
Gomez-Whaley noted that the board received several emails from the community arguing against renewing the partnership with ACU and argued that she doesn’t believe Christian student-teachers can separate their Christian values from their professional obligations making them unable to treat students equally.
“For me, this is not a concern about Christianity, there are plenty of Christian denominations who are LGBTQ friendly. So, I want to make it clear that, for me, my pause is not that they're Christian so much as 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 board president said.
“I simply don't know how a piece of paper can change somebody's underlying value system. Even though they may not … do anything illegal, where they are preaching or using Bible verses, how do you shut off an essential part of your being, and not be biased to the individuals in which you are in charge of nurturing and supporting unconditionally?” she asked. “I don't see how that disconnect is possible.”
The decision by the school board has roiled many conservative Christians across the country including Tanner DiBella, president and chairman of the American Council, “a faith-based advocacy group advancing life, liberty, morality, and family in public policy and public opinion.”
DiBella vowed in a statement on Twitter that his organization will commit resources in 2024 to vote against the school board members. All the current school board members except the president are first-term officials.
“The Washington Elementary School District in Arizona has unanimously voted to stop hiring student-teachers from Arizona Christian University. Why? Because of their biblical values. The five-member board said they cannot support student-teachers with traditional Christian values in the classroom. This is blatantly anti-religious bigotry,” DiBella said.
“The American Council is committed to pour financial resources into the Washington Elementary School District School Board Race in 2024 to elect competent, balanced, and family-centered leaders who focus on education and not politics.”