The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed suit Wednesday against a publicly funded charter school alleging that it is promoting the Muslim religion and is leasing school space from a religious organization without following state law.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, known as TIZA, and the Minnesota Department of Education, which the ACLU says is at fault for failing to uncover and stop the alleged transgressions. The suit names the department and Alice Seagren, the state education commissioner, as co-defendants.

The department investigated the Twin Cities school last year, and the school said it had taken corrective actions in response to concerns about the practicing of religion on campus. TIZA said in a written statement on Wednesday that the school is nonsectarian and in compliance with federal and state regulations.

But the ACLU claims the school is using federal and state money to promote religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“TIZA has received millions of dollars of taxpayer money to support what is, in essence, a private religious school,” said Charles Samuelson, state ACLU executive director.

The suit caught the school by surprise, said spokesman Darin Broton.

“We actually invited the ACLU in the spring of 2008 to visit TIZA, and they chose to decline,” he said.

Samuelson said the ACLU arranged a visit to the school, but the school had to cancel, and the ACLU never heard back from the school when it tried to reschedule. Samuelson said the suit was filed after a lengthy ACLU investigation.

The state Department of Education said in a statement Wednesday that it will continue to monitor the school and is drafting legislation in response to concerns raised about TIZA in the past year. 

The school, which has one campus in Inver Grove Heights and a smaller site in Blaine, has about 430 K-8 students , most of them Muslim. Founded in 2003 , it receives state per-pupil funding that the state education department expects to total $4.7 million for the current school year.

Samuelson said the school has used some government aid money to pay rent to holding companies, which then funneled it to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and Minnesota Education Trust, a group the ACLU says is a non-profit that also promotes Islam. The school and the society were incorporated on the same day by the same person, which Samuelson said creates a conflict of interest. “They created legal fictions, but it’s the same organization,” Samuelson said.

Minnesota law requires that charter schools be non-sectarian in their programs and policies. It allows charter schools to lease from religious organizations, but only if other suitable space is not available, the space rented was built as a school and the state approves of the lease.

Samuelson said the school was violating that law because the Blaine campus wasn’t built as a school, because TIZA made no apparent attempt to rent from a non-profit organization or commercial entity, and because there was apparently no review of the lease by either the state Department of Education or the state Department of Administration.

The Blaine campus is a former medical building, Broton said.

The suit also alleges that there are prayers on the walls of the school entry and that teachers have participated in student prayer activities. Samuelson said the school has used its website to seek volunteers to lead prayers, and that it requires students and staff to dress in attire that conform to Islamic religion. He also said the school has issued a handbook instructing staff to not discuss what goes on at the school. “You cannot have a broad secrecy oath” in a school funded with public dollars, Samuelson said.

The ACLU is not targeting Muslims but defending the U.S. Constitution, whose First Amendment states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” Samuelson said.

Federal guidelines allow students to pray and organize prayer groups in public schools, but teachers and other school employees may not compel students to pray or actively participate in student prayer while acting in their official roles.

The ACLU investigation was prompted by a column about the school’s practices by Katherine Kersten, a former columnist for the Star Tribune, Samuelson said. The column by the conservative writer was recently discontinued.

In May, the Minnesota Department of Education ordered the school to change the way it handled student prayer and busing. The school was allowing students and teachers to attend 30-minute Friday prayers on school grounds. The state also took issue with the fact that TIZA does not provide busing immediately after classes. Instead, the school waits until the end of after-school activities, including a religious studies course run by the Muslim American Society that more than half the students took last year.

In response to the state’s concerns, TIZA said in August that it would shorten the Friday prayers and have teachers who wanted to pray go to a separate room, but it said some staff members would still join the students to ensure their safety. The school said an “overwhelming majority” of parents liked the school’s later bus schedule, but said it would reimburse families who wanted to arrange earlier transportation.

State education officials said at the time that the changes might satisfy the law. They visited the school again in December, Broton said.

But the ACLU says the changes, if they were made, are not enough to bring the school into compliance with constitutional requirements.
Samuelson said he was not asking that the school go out of business. “They may choose to become an Islamic school. That would be fine and we would defend their right to do it,” but they would have to do so without public funding, he said. “Or they could choose to follow state law and change some of their procedures. That would be fine as well.”

The suit comes as state legislators and charter school advocates consider changes to state law regulating the schools. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools is proposing changes that relate to school sponsors, governance and conflicts of interest, among others, said Eugene Piccolo, the group’s executive director. But the discussion began well before TIZA came under fire last spring and did not result from that controversy, he said.

Separation of church and state is important, but it’s “unfortunate” that the ACLU is suing a school with Muslim students when other charter schools may have inappropriate ties to Christian groups, said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the House K-12 education finance committee. “I hate to see just Muslims get picked on if there are others with the same arrangements,” she said.

Samuelson said that over the years the Minnesota ACLU has sued a number of public school districts for promoting various Christian sects. In addition, it has sued cities around the state for violating the separation of church and state clause of the First Amendment, most recently, the city of Duluth for putting a Ten Commandments monument on the city hall lawn.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury and chair of the Senate charter school working group, said Wednesday it would be “very appropriate” for the Legislature to develop a better understanding of how charter schools are creating non-profit organizations or building corporations and using lease aid from the state to own their buildings.

“In the case of TIZA,” she said, “given the recent allegations of money flowing to a religious organization, it would be worth our while to understand the arrangements that  are being used by this particular organization. We have to absolutely assure the public that there is  transparency in how taxpayer dollars are being used for lease aid.”

School officials said they received death and arson threats, as well as harassing anti-Muslim messages, after public scrutiny intensified last spring. Police increased patrols in response, and the school put in a security buzzer at the door.

The lawsuit was prepared by Peter Lancaster and Megan McKenzie, attorneys from the Dorsey and Whitney law firm, according to the ACLU. They did the work on a pro bono basis on behalf of the ACLU, Samuelson said.

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 rfurst@startribune.com

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016 slemagie@startribune.com