An Arizona School District settled a religious discrimination case Thursday two months after it was accused of illegally terminating a contract while its members blasted the Christian "Jesus" values of a university.
The Washington Elementary School District was sued in March for allegedly impugning on the religious rights of Arizona Christian University for terminating a partnership that had been ongoing for 11 years after multiple board members attacked them for their religious beliefs.
On Wednesday evening, the board restored a contract with the university. A settlement agreement also likely will include that the district will be responsible for thousands in legal fees.
Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented the university, said the school board "showed blatant hostility to ACU’s beliefs" when it questioned how one could "be committed to Jesus Christ" and yet, at the same time, respect LGBTQ students and board members.
One of the board members mentioned in the suit, Tamillia Valenzuela, describes herself as "a bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina… who loves a good hot wing (but only with the right ranch) and things that sparkle."
"My concerns, [is] when I go to Arizona Christian University's website, [they are] ‘committed to Jesus Christ, accomplishing his will and advancements on earth as in Heaven,'" she said. "While I full-heartedly believe in the religious freedom and people being able to practice whatever faith that they have, I had some concerns regarding looking at this particular institution… And I think it's a really good time for us to take a moment and really pause about where our values lie."
"Part of their values is... [to] ‘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,'" she said.
"Because if we're bringing people in whose mission [has]… been with their institution's education that very plainly on their website... that above all else, it was to influence people to 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 space for people who think differently and do not have the same beliefs," she said.
School board member Kyle Clayton blasted the university for "teaching with a Biblical lens."
"I, too, echo what Ms. Valenzuela said when I… looked into not only their core values, but the statement of faith… [which they] ask their students to sign and live by," he said. "Proselytizing is embedded into how they teach. And I just don't believe that that belongs in schools."
ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman of Alliance Defending Freedom said, "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."
"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."