The office met with community leaders on how it could protect LGBTQ+ people in the coming legislative session.
Amid school board fight, state lawmaker and far-right activists double down on religious bigotry as "free speech"
Washington Elementary School Board battle emboldens Republicans who promote religious discrimination... A new "Eyes on the State"... and our next Listening Session is March 30.
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Before Lindsay Love took her seat on the Chandler Unified School District Board, she’d been frequenting meetings for years. A social worker by trade, the job seemed straightforward: review challenges teachers and administrators had, approve contracts and funding, and hear grievances during public meetings.
But Love soon realized that the politics of being on the school board became complicated once she was in power. Suddenly, she said, threats and insults were hurled her way. Parents would show up en masse to protest her and the board. They painted her a pedophile by calling her a “groomer” because she supported LGBTQ+ students, they made racist remarks, and they attacked her reputation.
This was in 2019, before the pandemic and when all eyes seemed laser-focused on the power of school boards in the nation’s continued culture war, stoked by far-right Republicans aimed at targeting queer youth, or education lessons around history and race.
“We started warning people in other school districts,” Love said, recollecting that her and the board had reached out to Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix school districts to warn them about the increased threats made by religious conservatives swarming their meetings. “They thought, ‘oh it’s over there, not here.’”
Now, just as in many places across the nation, religious conservatives packing school board meetings has become a commonplace scene across Arizona, arguing that schools are “indoctrinating” schoolchildren to “woke” ideologies.
“I don’t know when equity became ‘woke,’” Love said. “But the purpose of the school board is to make sure every student is treated and taught fairly and equally.”
That purpose that Love described has sparked another national firestorm by conservative news outlets, politicians and religious zealots targeting the Washington Elementary District School Board in Phoenix for enforcing a non-discrimination ordinance passed by their city years earlier.
Last month, the board voted unanimously to end their agreement with Arizona Christian University—a private Christian university—because student-teachers who attend the school are required to sign a pledge that says, among other things, that being queer is a moral sin, and that there are only two genders, which cannot be changed.
The city’s non-discrimination ordinance allows boards to sever contracts with people and organizations that promote discrimination against students, including those who identify as queer.
“An institution has policies that are openly bigoted and I will not sit here and let our children be subjected to that,” Tamillia Valenzuela, a member of the school board, said on Thursday night at the district school board meeting, which was met with both claps and loud boos.
Attendees at the meeting said that they felt their religion was being persecuted and many said, incorrectly, that ACU student-teachers were being unfairly targeted. (For clarity, the agreement to end the relationship with ACU was because of the university’s pledge against queer people, not for being Christian.)
“No one on this board has stated that Christian teachers will not be allowed in this district,” Valenzuela said to the crowd, some of them hissing from the audience.
Since ending the relationship, multiple far-right news outlets—including Fox News, the Alliance for Defending Freedom, and the Christian Post—have targeted board members, but specifically Valenzuela, its only queer woman of color.
ACU’s president, Len Munsil, told The Christian Post that, “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.”
But the statement made by Munsil, who also runs the Center for Arizona Policy which has a long history of pushing “traditional marriage” and lobbied for a bill that allowed businesses to discriminate against gay couples, is not fully correct, at least in how the board decided its vote.
“For me, this is not a concern about Christianity,” said Board Chairwoman Nikkie Gomez-Whaley. “There are plenty of Christian denominations who are LGBTQ friendly, so I want to make it clear that for me, my pause is not that they’re Christians so much as this particular institution’s strong anti-LGBTQ stance.”
Still, Arizona’s far-right conservative lawmakers, such as Sen. Anthony Kern of Gilbert, have taken Washington Elementary School Board’s spotlight to platform their own anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies.
Kern has said that the school board encroached on people’s first amendment rights, where religious beliefs—even bigoted ones—should be recognized as religious freedom allowed in public institutions.
He was also at the school board meeting Thursday night and held a rally outside the school, with protesters behind him chanting, “Jesus back into government,” an ethos that violates the nation’s Bill of Rights.
This isn’t the only time where religious discrimination by teachers inside of schools has been promoted by Kern and others in the state’s “Freedom Caucus,” a group of conservative leaders who have leaned heavy into the nation’s culture wars. In this year’s senate bill, SB1001, which recently passed the Senate and is set to be voted through the House, teachers and staff could use personal religious beliefs to not acknowledge trans students’ preferred pronouns or names if they have a sincerely held religious beliefs against it.
And though that bill and others similar to it are all expected to be vetoed by the governor, LGBTQ+ people and their advocates say that the push of anti-LGBTQ+ bills has resulted in exactly what republicans in the House and Senate wanted: for people to fight the battle amongst themselves.
“You’ve called me fat, called me the N-word, told me to go back to Mexico. You can say what you want, but our students—our young people—are watching you. You are letting them know that you are not a safe person to be around, and that they cannot exist in their full humanity. And that is a shame.”
-Tamillia Valenzuela, Washington Elementary School Board member who has been targeted by conservative news outlets.
EYES ON THE STATE
LOOKOUT's 'Eyes on the State' is brought to you by an exclusive partnership with Equality AZ. Check here every week to see what's being proposed by lawmakers, who are the state power brokers, and context for current and upcoming bills.
Mark your calendars! On March 30, LOOKOUT will be holding its second semi-regular listening session. Time and place TBD, but sign up and get your tickets here and be notified next week when a location is determined.
On March 11, EqualityAZ hosts another Queer People Fit series at South Mountain at Judith Tunnel.
On March 11, Tempe is hosting the annual Aloha Festival which celebrates local Micronesian communities.
On March 12, the Tempe Center for the Arts is hosting the Miss and Mister Phoenix Pride Pageant. Tickets are $20 and can be bought here.
On March 18, Phoenix will host the annual Pride Run, which will start in the Melrose district.
On March 19, One n’ Ten is hosting its Fresh Brunch, celebrating 30 years Desert Ridge Resort and Spa.