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How "God" and "Jesus" found themselves in Peoria School Board politics.
A LOOKOUT analysis shows that in Peoria Unified School District, religion was quoted at least 47 times to justify anti-trans rules and regulations.
Peoria, Ariz. — Community members and elected officials in Peoria's school district were responsible for quoting religious scripture and using loaded religious language to justify eliminating trans rights, a LOOKOUT analysis shows.
Religious language was used at least 47 times in the past year during school board meetings at Peoria Unified School District, some of them by elected board members.
LOOKOUT downloaded and transcribed over 35 hours of audio from board meetings held between February and August this year to see how often certain religious words were quoted in order to promote limiting or completely decimating LGBTQ+ rights inside publicly funded schools.
The words LOOKOUT did a search for were: “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Lord,” “church” and “Bible.” The analysis also did a search for religious scripture, such as Psalms or quotes from specific books of the Bible.
LOOKOUT analyzed the context of the words said so that everyday uses—such as the word "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or as an exclamation—were not included in the total count.
Most of the comments came from members of the public, including people who ally themselves with national and local far-right groups, such as Turning Point USA, which is based in Arizona.
A member of that group, for example, said at a May 22 meeting that the school board was not adhering to the tenets of the Christian religion, adding that, “Members of this board are neither securing the God given rights of the students and families of this community, nor are they defending the innocent entrusted to their care.”
Other comments made by community members included:
“We believe that we are called as Christians to love everyone. But loving someone does not mean agreeing with them on everything. It does not mean condoning behaviors. And it does not mean sacrificing our identity and beliefs for others. I feel that a policy needs to be written to protect our girls.”
“You take God out of it, and this is what you get. It's kind of too bad."
“I want God in the decision making on this board.”
Governing boards can't stop people from speaking during public comment, but individual members are required to abstain from promoting their own religion. Still, two elected officials to the board—Rebecca Hill and Heather Rooks—consistently used religious language, or borrowed rhetoric from other religious leaders, to further anti-LGBTQ+ policies.
In the past, both Rooks and Hill have been warned for speaking scripture by the school district's attorney, as well as by groups such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Secular AZ, both watchdog nonprofits dedicated to church and state separation.
But LOOKOUT's analysis gives a glimpse into how both members' stature on the board has emboldened evangelicals to come out in their support. At least four times, LOOKOUT tracked members of the public applauding the two officials for using religious rhetoric. One community speaker even said, referring to Hill and Rooks, "I appreciate the board officials who are standing on the side of righteousness. Thank you and God bless you for your boldness."
Though Rooks has never been as bold as Hill to use specific religious scripture to justify promoting anti-trans rules or regulations in the meetings, she starts out every meeting with a publicly stated prayer, and often uses talking points made by other religious leaders about "protecting" girls from trans girls.
Hill, though, used religion at least twice to specifically target trans youth, including one time where she said it was “Time to protect our kids, specifically our girls. And one final thing… God has been brought up a lot. And God created man, and God created woman.”
Hill recently resigned from her position, citing family reasons. Her position will be appointed until next term.
During the most recent meeting on Aug. 24, one community member advocated for Hill: “We're all free to exercise first amendment rights, including those with the dumb anti-science ideas like gender fluidity,” she said. “But I'll tell you what these two board members have done. They have triggered the anti God, anti Christian prejudice, hetero-phobic Target moms, Bud Light dads and Disney district employees who are obsessed with sexualizing children.”
The analysis done by LOOKOUT shows how the argument against trans rights in public places, such as schools, has become a foundational argument for religious people, despite taxpayer-funded agencies and government officials being required to keep personal religious beliefs out of the decision-making process.
Peoria Unified is not the only school district to face community members using religious bigotry to promote anti-LGBTQ+ rules. Earlier this year, Washington Elementary School District received national attention after trying to not renew a contract with a local college that forces their students to sign a pledge that included abiding by certain moral standards, including not recognizing trans people or same-sex couples.