Update: May 4, 2023 – Two months after ADF attorneys sued the Washington Elementary School District for unlawfully cutting ties with Arizona Christian University because of its religious beliefs, the district’s board voted to enter a new agreement allowing ACU students to teach in the district once again.
Becoming a teacher is a unique way to have a positive influence on the next generation, and that is exactly what Arizona Christian University students in the elementary education program are seeking to do.
For more than a decade, the university had an agreement with a nearby school district that helped student teachers gain valuable experience and provided quality teaching for elementary students in the district.
But in February 2023, the district school board abruptly—and unconstitutionally—ended that agreement, harming both students in the district and student teachers from the university.
Read on to learn more about this case.
What is Arizona Christian University?
Arizona Christian University is a private Christian university in Glendale, Arizona. It seeks to “educate and equip followers of Christ to transform culture with the truth.” It educates every student through a biblical worldview, and it encourages students to “serve the Lord Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”
ACU has partnered with Washington Elementary School District, the largest elementary school district in Arizona, for the last 11 years. The partnership has allowed ACU students in its elementary education program to student-teach and shadow teachers in the district.
This partnership has benefited both Arizona Christian and Washington Elementary School District. ACU students have gained valuable teaching experience in the classroom, which they need to complete in order to graduate, and the district has enjoyed excellent service from student teachers. In fact, the district has hired multiple Arizona Christian student teachers to full time positions over the last 11 years.
But the district school board recently voted to bring this partnership to an end.
In February 2018, ACU and Washington Elementary School District signed another partnership agreement. It was meant “to enable an educational experience for student teachers at [Washington Elementary schools] that may qualify for University academic credit as determined by [Arizona Christian].”
The agreement noted that student teachers needed to meet the standards of the district and follow all written policies at the schools where they were teaching. It also allowed either the elementary schools or Arizona Christian University to dismiss student teachers if they were not performing as they should be.
The agreement had a term of five years, with the option to be renewed on a year-to-year basis. Both Washington Elementary School District and ACU agreed to the renewal each year, up until 2023.
Following that tradition, the School District sent ACU a notice asking it if it wanted to continue the partnership. ACU signed that document, stating it would like to continue. But in February 2023, the district school board unanimously voted not to renew the agreement simply because of ACU and its students’ religious character and beliefs. During the meeting, multiple board members disparaged ACU’s Christian beliefs.
One board member suggested the university’s Christian beliefs would prevent ACU student teachers from properly caring for and respecting students and would make people feel “unsafe,” citing Arizona Christian’s “Core Commitment” to “be committed to Jesus Christ.”
Another board member said he was afraid the student teachers would push their beliefs on the elementary students and implied ACU students would shame certain students.
In reality, Arizona Christian and its students’ Christian beliefs instruct them to show kindness, love, and respect to the elementary students they teach and other staff members within the school district.
In fact, the school district never cited any wrongdoing, complaints, or evidence of any ACU student teachers violating any school district policy during the 11 years the school district partnered with ACU.
The Washington Elementary School District board voted to end its partnership with ACU simply because of the university’s and its students’ religious beliefs.
Because of this clear violation of the First Amendment, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit against the school district to protect the religious freedom of both Arizona Christian University and its students.
Two months after ADF filed the lawsuit, the Washington Elementary School District’s board voted to enter a new agreement allowing ACU students to serve again as student teachers. The agreement can be renewed annually for up to five years. In addition, the district agreed to pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees as part of the settlement.
“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,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of U.S. Litigation David Cortman.
“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.”
- February 2023: The Washington Elementary School District board unanimously voted to end its partnership with Arizona Christian University because of the university’s religious beliefs.
- March 2023: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against the school district for violating the First Amendment.
- May 2023: The school district’s board voted to enter a new agreement allowing ACU students to teach in the district again. The district also agreed to pay $25,000 in attorneys’ fees as part of a settlement.
The bottom line
The government cannot treat people of faith worse than everyone else. Students should not lose opportunities and be punished because of their religious beliefs.