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ACLU settles with state, school sponsor

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 7, 2011 - 9:39 PM

After years of litigation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has reached tentative settlements with two parties in a lawsuit over a metro-area charter school accused of promoting Islam.

The state education commissioner and Islamic Relief USA, an organization that oversees the school, have reached deals with the ACLU, subject to approval by a federal judge.

Among the terms: Islamic Relief will pay the ACLU more than $250,000, and the state will intensify its screening of charter schools to make sure they don't illegally promote religion, according to court documents and an attorney with knowledge of the deals.

The ACLU has argued that both parties were partly responsible for alleged problems at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA), a K-10 school with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. In a lawsuit filed in January 2009, the ACLU accused the publicly funded school of promoting religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution, a claim that officials at TiZA have denied.

The ACLU's battle with the school is still raging, and while a settlement conference is slated for Thursday, "The ACLU is many miles away from any settlement with TiZA," said Peter Lancaster, an attorney at the law firm Dorsey & Whitney who has represented the ACLU. "We haven't really been able to agree on anything in the case."

In a written statement issued Monday, a spokesman for TiZA declined to comment on any potential settlement.

Among other terms, Islamic Relief has agreed to pay the ACLU $267,500, according to court documents filed last week.

That payment won't cover the ACLU's legal costs related to Islamic Relief, "but I think the ACLU wants other [charter school] sponsors to know that sponsoring a religious school can be an expensive proposition," Lancaster said.

Islamic Relief, which denies wrongdoing, has agreed not to seek to incorporate in Minnesota, which the out-of-state organization would need to do in order to continue serving as TiZA's authorizer under a new state law. The organization also said that it has secured the cooperation of two witnesses who may testify if the ACLU's claims against TiZA go to trial.

The ACLU's settlement with state education commissioner Brenda Cassellius is not yet public, but in a motion last week, ACLU attorneys told a judge that the deal "is explicitly conditioned upon the agreement and all of its attachments being made public."

State officials declined to discuss the terms of the agreement on Monday. No money will change hands between the state and the ACLU under the deal, Lancaster said.

The settlement requires state officials to ensure "that what happened in this case won't be repeated," he said. Under the deal, the state will require charter school officials to fill out a questionnaire intended to uncover possible ties between the schools or their lessons and religion, he said.

As part of both settlements, state officials, Islamic Relief and the ACLU also have compiled a list of facts about the case that they believe should not be in dispute, according to court documents.

Some of those facts are supported by records that have been tagged as confidential by TiZA and others, but the ACLU has asked the court to specify that those documents should be public.

The list carries the "power of sunlight," Lancaster argued, adding that, to him, it's the most important part of the settlements. "We think that the school has operated in secrecy for too long," he said.

"When the public or when legislators look at what went wrong in this school, I think it will have an effect on how people look at other charter schools, too," he said.

The assertions that the ACLU wants to broadcast include many already made public in the court record, he said.

The ACLU has argued that the school is "pervasively sectarian," with features ranging from a calendar built around Muslim holidays to an Arabic language curriculum "replete with religious instruction."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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