ACLU seeks to make an example of TiZA

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • October 4, 2011 - 1:56 PM

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy closed months ago, but a group that accused the public school of promoting Islam is pressing on with its case in hopes of drawing a "bright line" between religion and other Minnesota charter schools.

With at least a dozen other schools on its radar, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said Monday it still hopes to win a definitive court ruling in its lawsuit against TiZA.

With such a ruling, "We won't have to go through this exercise 12 or 15 or 20 times, and people who are founding charter schools will know what the rules are," said ACLU Minnesota Executive Director Chuck Samuelson.

The ACLU on Monday released what it considers a cautionary tale for other schools: A detailed description of religious and financial entanglements at TiZA that, they argue, put the school on the wrong side of the boundary between religion and public education.

The ACLU also is gathering information about roughly a dozen Minnesota charter schools that, like TiZA, have close ties with religious organizations, Samuelson said. The group is uncertain whether any of those schools is violating the constitution by promoting religion, he said, declining to name them.

The 30-page document released by the ACLU lacks the weight of a judge's ruling, but it is backed by both the state education commissioner and the nonprofit group that oversaw the school. Both were initially co-defendants in the lawsuit. As part of settlements with the ACLU, they agreed on a set of facts about what really happened at the school.

As part of its settlement, the state will also require charter schools to submit annual written assurance that they are nonsectarian.

To TiZA, Monday's statement is "a cherry-picked set of positions that the parties have taken to justify their actions," said former school director Asad Zaman, who pointed out that the case has yet to go before a jury. "It has no legal validity."

After battling the ACLU for more than two years, TiZA was forced to close its campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine last summer when a new state law left it without legally required scrutiny. Now, Zaman and school attorneys argue that the case is moot and should be dismissed.

With even the ACLU acknowledging that the case is unlikely to be tried, Monday's statement marks what could be a culminating moment in the case.

The document, backed by more than 2,500 pages of sworn testimony and other records, details the tangled relationships between school leaders and TiZA's religious landlords, as well as classroom practices that raised red flags for the ACLU. Those included Arabic textbooks marketed as having "Islamic values" and the way the school accommodated student prayer.

A sampling of its points:

•While serving as TiZA's director, Zaman also held a variety of leadership roles, including acting president for the Muslim American Society of Minnesota (MAS-MN), an organization with close links to the holding company that was one of the school's landlords.

•Several checks made out to TiZA or designated for the school's benefit were deposited in a landlord's account, including one for $46,701.

•On volunteer applications, the school used to seek parents to help with Friday prayers.

•On occasion, Zaman let students chant "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is great" in Arabic, at school rallies.

•The school spent well over $1 million in public funding to renovate its campuses, benefiting its sectarian landlords.

Written months ago, the statement was made public on Monday after the court unsealed some documents in the case last week.

Asked whether he disputes any of its assertions, Zaman said, "I don't know. It has been months and months since I have read it."

To ACLU leaders, the statement paints a clear picture of repeated legal violations at the school. A small group of people, including Zaman, effectively controlled both the school and its religious landlords, they argued.

The lawsuit has been "searing" for the ACLU, said Samuelson, who said it would have been easier in some ways if TiZA's ties had been with Christianity rather than Islam. "We couldn't be accused of being racist," he said.

Zaman is unsympathetic. "These people do not have the courage to go after Christian institutions, and so they choose to pick on defenseless Muslims," he said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-746-3284

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