Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against Washington Elementary School District (WESD) on behalf of Arizona Christian University (ACU) “for cutting ties with the university because of its religious beliefs.”

ADF explains that for 11 years, students from ACU’s elementary education program were placed in classrooms in the district to fulfill their student teaching requirements.

But in a unanimous vote on February 23, the five WESD governing members voted not to renew its partnership with ACU, citing the university’s core commitments to Jesus Christ and to a biblical view of marriage.

Sadly, in a contentious March 9 school board meeting two weeks after that vote, board member Kyle Clayton said he and other board members had received many threatening and “vile, homophobic and explicit” emails.

The ADF complaint quotes board member Tamillia Valenzuela’s remarks at the February meeting, where she listed her concerns about ACU:

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 in advancing His kingdom on Earth as in heaven.”

Sounds par for the course for a Christian university, doesn’t it? Should its graduates be kept from working in public schools because of this commitment to Jesus Christ?

Valenzuela, who is described on the WESD Governing Board website as “a bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina,” went on to describe ACU’s beliefs about sexuality and marriage:

Part of their values, 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.”

The lawsuit goes on to quote more of Valenzuela’s remarks, saying she “implied Arizona Christian and its students could not treat Board members with respect.” She stated:

I want to know how bringing people from an institution that is ingrained in their values … will … impact three of your board members who are a part of the LGBTQ community. We have added our pronouns at the dais as a solidarity – let our LGBT community know, that we stand, in making sure that they feel protected.

The suit continues to quote Valenzuela, who said ACU’s values made the student teachers unsafe for her and students:

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. Because that makes me feel like I could not be safe in this in this school district. …

So I really want us to think hard about who we’re partnering with deep dive and I want to ask the district, “is this school value aligned with what we’re trying to do and making sure that all of our students feel safe?(Emphasis in the original.)

Clayton, one of the three board members who is gay-identified, stated that having a “biblical lens” might lead ACU student teachers to proselytize or “shame” students:

[W]hen I went and looked into not only [Arizona Christian’s] core values but then the statement of faith that they ask their students to sign and live by, what gave me pause was it’s not just teaching but it’s teaching as they say um, with a Biblical lens, with a proselytizing is embedded into how they teach, and um, you know, I just don’t believe that that belongs in schools and I would never want uh you know my son to talk about his two dads and be shamed by a teacher who believed a certain way. …

The complaint then quotes Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley, who said, “For me, my pause is … 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.”

Despite the fact that school district staff recommended the contract with ACU be renewed, the board voted against it.

ADF says:

The school district’s decision to revoke its relationship and cease all future agreements with the school because of its religious status and beliefs violates the university’s constitutionally protected freedoms.

The vote has led to conflict in the community. And, as the story made national news, the board has come under fire, receiving threatening and nasty emails.

At the March 9 meeting, Clayton said board member Valenzuela “faced increased death threats, racial attacks, homophobic harassment as a result of her photo being at the top of many media stories.” It’s possible the media spotlighted her because of her penchant for colorful hair and wearing cat-ear headbands to board meetings.

WESD Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley mentioned the attacks, saying, “I do appreciate the emails that were considerate and thoughtful, whatever their position was. … Unfortunately, that was the minority of emails that were received.”

She continued:

The vast, vast majority of emails came from outside of our community, some even outside of our state … which were in fact vile. Which called for – and part of the [reason for] security tonight, it called for mass shootings. It called for holding us accountable with pictures and guns associated with that. It called for violent physical and sexual assaults on board members.

She went on to say that they would listen to thoughtful voices, but the others “would not be responded to or tolerated.”

It’s understandable that parents and community members – and even people across the country – would be upset about the board’s blatant hostility toward religion and denigration of Christian student teachers. We’re hopeful that ADF wins the case, with a court deciding that the district violated ACU and its students’ constitutional rights.

But here’s where we do agree with these board members: There’s no excuse for threatens and harassment. This does nothing to help believers as they fight for religious freedom in an increasingly hostile world.

The case is Arizona Christian University v. Washington Elementary School District 

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Photo from ADF.