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Phoenix School Board Discriminates Against Teachers—Goldwater Stands Up for Religious Freedom

April 4, 2023

The government should never retaliate against private groups or individuals on the basis of perceived religious views—it’s not just wrong, it’s unconstitutional. But that’s exactly what Arizona’s largest elementary school district did when it cut off a reliable, longstanding source of new teachers from Arizona Christian University (ACU) because it didn’t approve of ACU’s religious beliefs. Now ACU is suing the Washington Elementary School District in federal court for religious discrimination, and last week the Goldwater Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the university, explaining how the school district flouted the U.S. and Arizona constitutions, as well as its governing board’s central educational mission.

Amid a historic teacher shortage, the school board voted in February to sever an eleven-year teacher-training relationship with ACU, contrary to its staff’s recommendation and without any relevant evidence or investigation. Instead, the board based its decision solely on a handful of statements one board member read on ACU’s website referring to the university’s Christian identity and beliefs. The school board member said:

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.” 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.” 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.

The school board’s rejection of qualified teachers over ACU’s religious beliefs and its graduates’ perceived views violates the constitutional rights of both ACU and its students to free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. Also, as the Goldwater Institute explains in its brief, the board’s actions also violate the Arizona Constitution’s “religious test” clauses, which prohibit the government from discriminating based on religion when making hiring decisions.

As Goldwater also pointed out, ACU and its students are not the only victims of the school board’s discrimination. The district’s message to thousands of children, families, and staff was loud and clear: if you share ACU’s values, you aren’t welcome here. What’s more, by prioritizing its own prejudices over practical hiring considerations during a nationwide teacher shortage, school officials hamstrung the district’s hiring efforts and wasted tax dollars.

A private organization like ACU should be free to espouse its beliefs without fear of retaliation from the government. And K-12 students should not have to go without teachers simply because their school board refuses to hire qualified candidates based on those candidates’ perceived personal beliefs and convictions.

In Arizona and across the country, the Goldwater Institute will always stand up for Americans’ individual liberties, and fight to hold government officials accountable when they trample on constitutional freedoms.

You can read our brief here.

John Thorpe is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.



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