Saturday, January 24, 2009

ACLU to sue TIZA charter school in Twin Cities


The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said it will file suit today against a publicly funded charter school, alleging that it is promoting the Muslim religion and that it is leasing school space from a religious organization, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, without following state law. The suit was to be filed this afternoon in U.S. District Court 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 in the school. TIZA officials have previously said they are in compliance with federal and state regulations.

In May, Asad Zaman, TIZA's director, said the state inquiry vindicated the school's position.

"I now have proof that this is not a religious school," Zaman said at the time. He is one of the defendants, as is Islamic Relief USA, a California non-profit organization and TIZA's sponsor.

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. The state ACLU said that the suit was being filed after a lengthy investigation by the organization.

"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 school, which has one campus in Inver Grove Heights and a smaller site in Blaine, had about 430 K-8 students last year, most of them Muslim. The public charter school, founded in 2003, receives per-pupil funding from the state that the ACLU said is expected to total $3.8 million for the current school year.

Samuelson said the school took government aid money and paid it to a holding company which then donated it to the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The money was used to pay for rent, according to the suit. He said that the school, holding company and the society were all incorporated on the same day by the same people, which Samuelson said was a conflict of interest. "They created legal fictions, but it's the same organization," Samuelson 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, which is forbidden in public schools. Samuelson said the school has used its website to seek volunteers to lead prayers. He also said that students and staff are required to dress in attire that conforms to Islamic religion.

The school has issued a handbook instructing staff to not discuss what goes on at the school, Samuelson said. "You cannot have a broad secrecy oath" in a school funded with public dollars, he said.

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

Samuelson acknowledged that he has heard that the school has made changes, but he said he has not seen any documentation to support the claim. He 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 also accuses the state Department of Education of failing to provide proper oversight over the dispersal of taxpayer funds to the academy.

"The commissioner and the department have not terminated the sponsorial relationship, have certified funds for the school, and have dispersed funds to the school despite repeated violations....," the lawsuit alleges.

Samuelson said the ACLU was 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." He said the school was also violating a Minnesota charter school law, which states that a charter school can rent from a religious organization if other suitable space is not available, the space rented was built as a school and the state approves of the lease. State law governing charter schools also states that they must be non-sectarian in their programs and policies. TIZA made no apparent attempt to rent from a non-profit organization or commercial entity and there was apparently no review of the lease by either the state Department of Education, as required by statute, or by the state Department of Administration, Samuelson said.

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 said those prayers could burden non-praying students, take up too much class time and give students the impression that the school endorsed Islam.

The state also took issue with the fact that TIZA did not provide busing immediately after classes. Instead, the school waited 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 may satisfy the law, adding that they would visit the school again.

But the ACLU says the changes are not enough to bring the school into compliance with constitutional requirements.

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 suit 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.

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