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Christian university suing Phoenix school district, claiming religious discrimination

Arizona Christian University filed a lawsuit after Washington Elementary School District terminated an agreement to have ACU students work at its schools.

PHOENIX — Arizona Christian University (ACU) filed a lawsuit Thursday against Washington Elementary School District, claiming the religious freedoms of its students were violated after the district terminated a student-teaching contract.

On Feb. 23, the school board voted to terminate an ongoing contract that allowed ACU students to gain teaching experience at the district's campuses.

Board member Tamillia Valenzuela said she was concerned about the university's anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs conflicting with the district's values since the private university has strict stances on marriage and sexuality.

"While I fully wholeheartedly 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," Valenzuela said during the February board meeting.

Another board member said their concerns are not rooted in Christianity but rather in ACU's apparent "strong" anti-LGBTQ+ stance.

The university has now taken legal action in federal court with a lawsuit that asks a judge to reinstate its contract with WESD for the 2023-2024 school year.

"Despite there being zero complaints about an Arizona Christian student teacher or alumnus, the School District decided to terminate its relationship with Arizona Christian and its students solely because of their religious status and beliefs on biblical marriage and sexuality," the lawsuit states.

The ACU student handbook states the university shall promote biblically-informed values, including "traditional sexual morality and lifelong marriage between one man and one woman." 

Though ACU requires its faculty and staff to sign a "statement of faith" that outlines their beliefs in strict heterosexual relationships, the university's lawsuit claims that student teachers are instructed to follow the rules of the assigned school they work in. 

"Arizona Christian instructs its students and staff not to push their religious beliefs on others while participating in student-teacher and practicum arrangements, and to otherwise abide by all policies," the lawsuit states.

On Thursday night, the school board held its first meeting since the decision. More than a hundred people showed up. The massive gathering divided by those against the board's decision and those who support it.

The crowd outside was divided along the street in front of the district's building. Republican State Senator Anthony Kern was seen singing with several people against the boards decision before walking into the meeting.

There were so many in attendance the majority had to watch from outside. Mobile billboards parked across the street played the meeting for the crowd. 

Before the public comment section Valenzuela talked about comments she's received from the public regarding the decision. 

"You can say what you want about me," Valenzuela said. "Call me fat, you've called me the n-word, told me to go back to Mexico... our young people are watching you and you are letting them know you are not a safe person to be around." 

When it came to the public comment portion, dozens of people spoke for and against the decision. Cheers, boos, and people snapping their fingers were heard depending on who was speaking. At one point, an official had to tell the crowd to stop hissing when someone was speaking.

"[I'm] so disappointed I just urge you to rethink this," said one woman against the decision.

"It is totally biased, it's wrong and completely discriminatory towards Christians in general," said another man.

Those who agreed with the board thanked them.

"I am proud to stand with a school board that is standing up for students," said one woman.

"This is the wrong issue of discrimination nobody is attacking Christians," another said.

It went back and for for a little more than an hour. After public comment the board continued its meeting agenda and most of the crowd left.

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