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School district defends decision to end partnership with anti-LGBTQ+ Christian university

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The five-member school board for the Washington Elementary School District in northwest Phoenix voted on February 23 to end a longstanding contract with Arizona Christian University (ACU) for student teachers.

The board president pushed back against charges of anti-Christian bias, citing “this particular institution’s strong anti-LGBTQ stance.”

“For me, this is not a concern about Christianity,” said board president Nikki Gomez-Whaley. “There are plenty of Christian denominations who are LGBTQ-friendly.”

Students from ACU have served as student teachers in the school district for the last 11 years without incident, according to a district official who testified at the meeting. Participants in the program sign an agreement that prohibits them from proselytizing or discriminating against children whose values don’t align with their own.

Despite that history, new board member Tamillia Valenzuela brought the motion to reconsider extending the university’s contract after investigating ACU’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues.

“While I full-heartedly believe in religious freedom and people being able to practice whatever faith that they have,” Valenzuela said, she had concerns regarding Arizona Christian University in particular.

“When I go to Arizona Christian University’s website,” it reads, “‘Above all else, be committed to Jesus Christ, accomplishing His will and advancing His kingdom on earth as in heaven,’” Valenzuela said.

Part of the “four values” of the university, Valenzuela continued to quote, is to “‘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.'”

“How does that hold space for people of other faiths?” Valenzuela asked. “How does that hold space for our members of the LGBT community? How does that hold space for people who think differently and do not have the same beliefs? 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,” she said, citing “three of your board members who are a part of the LGBTQ community,” as well.

Out board member Kyle Clayton agreed, saying “proselytizing is embedded into how they teach.”

“It just takes one off-the-cuff comment, one moment, to then have trauma for a child that’s already vulnerable, already experienced trauma,” Clayton said. That trauma “could last the rest of their life.” 

Clayton says the school’s statement of faith, which the university requires students to sign, is what gave him pause.

“It’s not just teaching, but it’s teaching, as they say, with a biblical lens,” Clayton told the meeting.

“’We believe the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning: the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union, as delineated in Scripture,’” Clayton quoted from the school’s statement of faith.

“I would never want my son to talk about his two dads, and be shamed by a teacher who believed a certain way.”

ACU responded to Washington Elementary School District’s actions in a statement: “The school board’s recent decision to ban ACU students from serving as student teachers was done for one reason only: our University’s commitment to our Christian convictions… That’s wrong, it’s unlawful, and it will only hurt the district’s students.”

Referring to the district’s own agreement signed by student teachers, board president Gomez-Whaley said, “I simply don’t know how a piece of paper can change somebody’s underlying value system, even though they may not do anything illegal, where they are preaching or using Bible verses. How do you shut off an essential part of your being and not be biased to the individuals in which you are in charge of nurturing and supporting unconditionally?” she asked.

“I don’t see how that disconnect is possible.”

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