In a striking win for advocates of religious freedom (i.e. the vast majority of Americans), Arizona’s Washington Elementary School District agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Arizona Christian University (ACU) alleging religious discrimination in contravention of the U.S. Constitution and established state law. The settlement walks back the district’s February decision to exclude ACU student teachers from public school classrooms based on the university’s “Statement of Faith” and its traditional, Christian religious beliefs.
For the 11 years preceding the school board’s decision, ACU enjoyed a harmonious and productive relationship with the district, with dozens of its students assisting in the district’s elementary schools as part of the university’s student teaching and practicum requirements. According to the complaint filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of ACU, at least 17 of those students went on to be hired as full-time employees. In no instance was there ever any allegation by the district about improper behavior by ACU students, who are required by the Arizona Christian Student Teaching Handbook to “[a]bide by the rules and policies of the assigned school.”
That didn’t stop the school board from terminating the longstanding operating agreement between ACU on Feb. 23 after one member brought up concerns about certain language contained in ACU’s mission statement demonstrating the university’s commitment to “biblically informed values that are foundational to Western civilization, including […] the centrality of family [and the] traditional morality and lifelong marriages between one man and one woman.”
Following a period of discussion, the board voted unanimously to end the agreement with ACU, causing significant harm to university students in the process of completing their teaching requirements – and doing so solely on the basis of their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.
As we noted, many religions and denominations hold beliefs similar to those of ACU. Were a court to uphold the school board’s decision, it would open the floodgates to widespread government discrimination against practicing members of many religions, including Orthodox Jewish and Muslim teachers, as well as those who are Roman Catholic.
Instead, this settlement reflects a positive development in the ongoing and seemingly ceaseless fight to defend the free exercise of religion. The school board’s commendable willingness to reverse itself is emblematic of a growing recognition that quality education is commonplace at religious institutions, even if some may disagree with those institutions doctrines and beliefs.
So long as good teachers don’t bring their faith into the secular, public classroom, there should be no need to further litigate this issue in a courtroom.