The five-member governing board of the Washington Elementary School District in Arizona, which includes three members of the LGBT community, has backtracked on their decision to ban Arizona Christian University student teachers from public school classrooms, because they practice biblical Christianity, as part of a settlement agreement for a religious discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of the university.
The settlement comes two months after Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom and other rights, filed the religious discrimination lawsuit on behalf of the Christian university.
In addition to allowing Arizona Christian student teachers back in the classroom under a new placement agreement, the university was given an additional five years of teaching practice for its students that will need to be renewed annually. The school district also agreed to pay $25,000 in attorneys' fees.
“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,” ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman, who argued in federal district court on behalf of ACU, said in a statement. “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.”
Len Munsil, president of ACU, called the settlement a “complete vindication of the rights of our students.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
According to the lawsuit filed by ADF in March, during a Feb. 23 board meeting, board member Tamillia Valenzuela stated that she went to the university's website and found that part of "their values" are "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."
It was further noted in the meeting that "Arizona Christian's religious statements and expression were a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse action" and the school district "did not have any legitimate administrative interests that would justify the retaliation."
While the university requires all students to sign its statement of faith which highlights beliefs about biblical marriage and sexuality, the lawsuit said, "Arizona Christian students understand that they must adhere to the school district's policies when student-teaching."
Attorneys for ADF argued that not only did the school district violate the First Amendment and state laws with their actions, but they also did a disservice to students of the district.
"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," Cortman said in a statement at the time. "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."