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College Barred From Running Program Because of Christians-Only Hiring Policy

November 01, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

A proposal that Azusa Pacific University run a $3.4-million publicly funded early education program for disadvantaged children has been dropped after the university declined to veer from its policy of hiring only Christians.

First 5 Los Angeles, a government agency that oversees expenditure of tobacco tax money for such programs in Los Angeles County, confirmed that it had decided not to award the contract to Azusa Pacific University.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California had threatened a possible lawsuit after a prospective employee was told she would not be hired by the university unless she signed a statement professing belief in Jesus Christ.

Sectarian organizations such as churches and church-related universities can legally hire only those who share their religious beliefs, but not when public funds are involved. In this case, the money came from a cigarette tax increase that took effect after California voters approved Proposition 10 in 1998.

According to the university, Azusa Pacific officials first raised the issue of their hiring policy to the county agency. But despite the clear prohibition against discriminatory hiring, a First 5 official initially told the school it would not be a problem.

"This is not our concern. We leave that up to you," a First 5 program officer, Marlene Tarumoto-Sugita, wrote the university in a Sept. 25 e-mail made available to The Times by Mark Dickerson, chief counsel for Azusa Pacific.

Tarumoto-Sugita did not return a telephone call from The Times. Executives of First 5 were also unavailable for comment.

As recently as Oct. 14, Dickerson said, First 5 program officer Bill Gould "told us things were still a go.... "

Among other things in Azusa's statement of faith, which all prospective employees must sign to be hired, is a declaration that the Bible is "the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God."

The statement also says: "We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory."

"We hadn't been hiding the ball," Dickerson said. "We did point out to them [in September] that we are a faith-based organization and we do require all our employees, faculty or staff to sign a statement of faith," he said.

With an enrollment of 8,000 students, Azusa Pacific has roots that go back to 1899 and is known for its biblically orthodox views.

After the prospective employee complained to the ACLU and the ACLU threatened to sue, the county agency reevaluated its position and eventually nixed the prospective contract.

First 5 spokeswoman Laura Lull said: "Upon reviewing Azusa Pacific's employment practices, we determined that their policy was not consistent with our policy."

The applicant was interested in the job because she had been among those who helped design the program under an original $1-million planning grant carried out by Cal State L.A., according to ACLU officials. The ACLU declined to identify the applicant.

"She wanted to continue. She was asked to sign a very religious statement that she believed in monotheism, that she accepted Jesus Christ," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.

"It was quite, quite religious. If she did not sign it, she could not be employed," Ripston said.

ACLU attorney Gregory Luke said the law was clear. "It prohibits discrimination in any program and activity that is funded by the state. It's unequivocal."

Luke said the employment questionnaire was not only illegal, but also violated her state constitutional right to privacy.

The "school readiness" program was designed to serve preschool children in the Azusa area.

Among other things, the program would encourage parents to read to their children to improve their chances of succeeding when they were old enough to go to school, First 5 spokeswoman Lull said.

But Cal State did not want to implement the second, or implementation, phase of the program, and proposed that Azusa Pacific take it over, Lull said.

Lull said she knew few details about the program or how the decision was reached not to award the contract to Azusa Pacific. She said First 5's executive director, Evelyn Martinez, was out of state and unavailable for comment. She said Teresa Nuno, the director of planning and development, also could not comment because she was recovering from an accident.

As of Friday, another First 5 spokesman, Garrison Frost, said he could not comment on whether the agency has anyone else in mind to implement the program.

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