ACLU to sue Twin Cities charter school that caters to Muslims

  • Article by: RANDY FURST and SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune Staff Writers
  • Updated: January 22, 2009 - 12:08 AM

The Minnesota ACLU has filed suit against TIZA, a charter school in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, claiming it is promoting the Muslim religion.

Two girls at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights chatted as they walked to their bus. The school and the state Department of Education are being sued over allegations of promoting religion.

Photo: renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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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.

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