Let’s try a thought experiment: A public school board votes for a policy that bans a certain group of people — say, teachers who are LGBTQ+ — from teaching in its school system because, it fears, one or more of those teachers might make students feel uncomfortable.
The odds of that happening are slim. But if it did occur, the media hordes would descend on offending board members with the fury and moral righteousness of a thousand “Woodsteins.”
“Are we only performing performative solidarity, or are we going to dig deep, and actually look at the partnerships that we’re doing?”
But the hypothetical that Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts proffered last week actually happened.
The Washington Elementary School District, encompassing parts of Phoenix and Glendale, Arizona, the largest school district in the state, voted unanimously to dissolve a longtime partnership with nearby Arizona Christian University (ACU) because student teachers from that school, Christians who believe historically vetted Christian doctrine about sex and marriage, might traumatize LGBTQ students.
At a Feb. 23 board meeting, three of the five board members, all LGBTQ, were outspoken in their fear that students from a school that holds to traditional biblical sexual mores and marriage tenets would pose too great a threat to the district’s queer students.
Board member Tamillia Valenzuela, a self-described “bilingual, disabled, neurodivergent Queer Black Latina” who frequently wears, including to board meetings, cat ears, was bothered by the content of ACU’s website, specifically its avowed commitment to “accomplishing [Jesus Christ’s] will in advancing His kingdom on Earth as in heaven.”
She went on: “Part of their values, 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.’”
Allowing students from a school espousing such doctrines entrée into district schools troubled the board member:
Because if we’re bringing people in whose mission [is to] ‘above all else . . . influence people to be biblically minded,’ how does that hold space for people of other faith[s], our members of the LGBT community [or] 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. Because that makes me feel like I could not be safe in this school district.
Valenzuela seemed worried one recent act of commitment to the LGBTQ+ cause – “We have added our pronouns at the dais as a solidarity” (they stuck their pronouns on their nameplates) — might be seen as empty talk. “Are we only performing performative solidarity, or are we going to dig deep, and actually look at the partnerships that we’re doing?”
Her allies on the board were equally troubled. Kyle Clayton, gay and married, said, “I would never want … my son to talk about his two dads and be shamed by a teacher who believed a certain way and was at a school that demands that they teach through God’s, their biblical lens.”
The president of the school board, Nikkie Gomez-Whaley, said, “This is not a concern about Christianity. There are plenty of Christian denominations who are LGBTQ-friendly.” She continued, “My pause is not that they’re Christian so much as this particular institution’s strong anti-LGBTQ stance and their strong belief that you believe this to your core and you take it out into the world.”
ACU is fighting back. The school, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, filed a suit in federal district court Thursday alleging that the board violated the First Amendment by voting not to renew the agreement with ACU. “The School District terminated its eleven-year relationship with Arizona Christian and its students strictly because of their religious status and belief — namely their beliefs on biblical marriage and sexuality — despite have zero evidence of any incident by an Arizona Christian student that violated any School District policy.”
Crucial to the debate is that last part: in the 11-year relationship, ACU has delivered approximately 25 student teachers to the district, and the district has hired 17 ACU grads; none of the 100-plus students teaching or shadowing district teachers has ever been accused of wrongdoing, nor have any complaints of their actions, statements, or behavior been filed; that is, no complaints have been made of proselytizing or teaching ACU religious beliefs to any students.
Also Thursday, at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, the first one since the controversial decision on Feb. 23, supporters from both sides showed up in force — many of those backing the board donning cat ears in solidarity with Valenzuela. Board sympathizers cited threats against them for their stance while ACU supporters called the board action unfair and anti-Christian. The state superintendent of public instruction showed up; politicians from both sides took to the microphones; one pol drove a billboard truck proclaiming “Protect Your First Amendment! Protect Christian Values!”; and everybody, per a board edict, had to pass through a metal detector, “due to threatening statements received by members of the Governing Board.”
At the meeting board members attempted to nuance their stance about Christianity, claiming they were not against religion but against anti-LGBTQ views, as adduced from the ACU website. “No one on this board has stated that Christian teachers will not be allowed within this district,” said Valenzuela. “What has been said, though … is that an agreement with an institution that allows bigotry within its core values is what was terminated.” (READ MORE From Tom Raabe: Yet More Trouble for Jack Phillips)
Translation: We’re not anti-Christian because there also exist Christian groups that are pro-LGBTQ. Those kinds of Christians we like; it’s conservative, biblical Christians we don’t.
Albert Mohler, a conservative Baptist, said this in a recent blog:
Now, as a theologian, I want to point to the essentially religious character of that argument. It’s an argument saying we are going to privilege certain forms of religion over other forms of religion. Very clearly this is a statement saying, we’re going to privilege progressive liberal morally revisionist denominations that have abandoned the Christian heritage, over against any institution that would dare to stand for historic biblical Christianity, and just remind ourselves of this, the beliefs of this Christian college when it comes to gender, sex, and marriage are the beliefs of Christianity for 2000 years. The innovation is not on their part. The moral rebellion is on the part of the culture.
Such favoritism of one religion over another is a violation of the Establishment Clause, ADF contends. In its brief, it quotes Larson v. Velente, a 1982 Supreme Court decision: “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.”
According to the ADF suit, “The School District made an explicit preference for religious beliefs and made clear that it was Arizona Christian and its students’ ‘strong’ Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality that prompted the School District’s termination of the student teacher agreement.”
Although a tiff at the local school-board level in flyover America, the fight over these student teachers presages an ominous future: governments in the United States asserting the “right” to ban proponents of the historic Christian faith, handed down for thousands of years, from employment because they’re not on the “right” side of the LGBTQ+ divide.
Said a friend of mine, Rev. David Cloeter, a retired Lutheran pastor, “Next step is not to hire conservative Christian teachers, or to ask the Christian teacher applicant where he/she stands on LGBTQ+ issues before they can be employed. The day may be coming when conservative Christians are no longer eligible to serve in certain professions, at least in blue states.”