An Inver Grove Heights charter school accused of crossing the line between religion and public education is fighting back against the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) says the ACLU, which sued the academy in January, defamed the school and hurt its ability to hire qualified teachers, according to counterclaims filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

In its suit, the ACLU alleged that the public school promotes the Muslim religion, violating the Constitution's First Amendment.

The K-8 school has denied the allegations and said in court documents that Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU, injured the school's reputation by saying publicly that TiZA is "a theocratic school ... as plain as the substantial nose on my face."

"We're surprised by these counterclaims," ACLU legal counsel Teresa Nelson said Tuesday. Nelson declined to comment further, saying the ACLU needed a chance to analyze the court documents.

$100,000 in damages sought

The ACLU's lawsuit and statements led to threats against the school's staff, and the lawsuit and resulting negative attention hurt the school's learning environment and caused several students to withdraw from the school, TiZA said in a statement Tuesday. At least 10 prospective TiZA teachers withdrew their applications in the middle of the hiring process, leaving the school with several open positions, the statement said.

For each of several counterclaims, the school asked the court to award more than $100,000 in damages.

TiZA has about 480 students, many of whom are Muslim and from poor, immigrant families, at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine.

TiZA, in addition to fighting the ACLU, has squared off against state Education Department officials who determined that more than a dozen of the school's teachers lack proper licenses. As a result of the Education Department's decision, which TiZA is appealing, state officials told the school last month that it would lose about $530,000 in state aid. The Education Department also withheld federal grants that had been awarded to the school. TiZA spokesmen have said the grants total close to $875,000.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016