Despite allowing student-teachers and practicums from Arizona Christian University for the last 11 years without incident, the five-member governing board of the Washington Elementary School District in Arizona has unanimously voted to stop the practice because of the perceived threat the students’ biblical value system poses to LGBT students.
At a board meeting held on Feb. 23, school district officials had recommended renewing the partnership with Arizona Christian University education students but the board members, three of whom identify as members of the LGBT community, said that having student teachers with biblical values in the state’s largest elementary school district is just too dangerous.
The Christian Post reached out to Arizona Christian University for comment on the severed relationship with the school district Friday, but no one was immediately available.
The five-member governing board members are Nikkie Gomez-Whaley, president; Jenni Abbott-Bayardi, vice president; Kyle Clayton, Tamillia Valenzuela, and Lindsey Peterson.
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.
“Because if we're bringing people in whose mission, who has been told with their institution of education, that … above all else, it 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? How does that hold space for people who think differently and do not have the same beliefs? At some point, we need to get real with ourselves and take a look at who we're making legal contracts with, and the message that that is sending to our community,” she added.
Clayton, who is married to his same-sex partner, said he was troubled not only by ACU’s traditional core values but also by its statement of faith which, among several other things, notes, “We believe the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning: the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union, as delineated in Scripture.”
“I went and looked into not only their core values, but then the statement of faith that they asked their students to sign and live by [is] what gave me pause,” Clayton said.
“It's not just teaching, but it's teaching, as they say, with a biblical lens, with a proselytizing. [It] is embedded into how they teach. And, you know, I just don't believe that that belongs in schools. And I would never want, you know, my son to talk about his two dads, and be shamed by a teacher who believed a certain way, and is at a school that demands that they teach through God's, their biblical lens,” he added.
“I also reached out to some of our social workers to see what they thought the impact of these teachers would be on our most vulnerable students. And it gave them pause to go and look and see this. And they are with our most vulnerable students every single day. And it just takes one off-the-cuff comment one moment, to then have trauma for a child that's already vulnerable, already experienced trauma,” he said.
When questioned about the history of the relationship the district has had with the university over the years, a district official explained to the board that the student-teachers have always signed agreements that prevent them from proselytizing and discriminating against children whose values don’t align with their own.
Gomez-Whaley said the board has received several emails from the community arguing against renewing the partnership with ACU. She also argued that she doesn’t think it is possible for Christian student teachers to separate their Christian values from their professional obligations to treat students equally under any legal requirement.
“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.”
Gomez-Whaley who is the most experienced board member, accepted blame for not raising questions about the partnership between the district and ACU earlier.
“There's a lot of things that I just didn't ask, quite frankly, the questions that I should have and so, I take ownership for that. But at this point in time, I do believe that we owe it to especially all of our students when we're working in equity, but especially our LGBTQ students and staff, who are under fire,” she said.
“We cannot continue to align ourselves with organizations that starkly contrasts our values, and say that we legitimately care about diversity, equity and inclusion and that we legitimately care about all of our families.”