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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 a partnership 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.
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 the 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 their most recent 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 this year.
Following that tradition, the School District sent ACU a notice earlier this year asking it if it wanted to continue the partnership. ACU signed that document, stating it would like to continue the agreement. But in February 2023, the district school board unanimously voted not to renew the partnership 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 – accomplishing His will and advancing His kingdom on earth as in heaven.”
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.
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. ACU and its students always abided by the district’s rules.
The Washington Elementary School District board voted to end its partnership with ACU simply because of the university’s and its students’ religious beliefs.
For 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.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from showing hostility to and discriminating against people because of their religious beliefs.
The Washington Elementary School District terminated its partnership with Arizona Christian University specifically because of its religious beliefs, denying student teachers opportunities to teach and improve their future career prospects. This decision also harms students within the school district, in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage.
If the court rules in favor of ACU, it will affirm that the government cannot treat religious institutions and religious students worse than everyone else.
The government cannot treat people of faith worse than everyone else. Students should not lose opportunities and be punished because of their religious beliefs.
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