ACLU presses ahead with charter school lawsuit

7:46 PM, Oct 3, 2011   |    comments
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  • TIZA classroom from KARE file

MINNEAPOLIS -- The ACLU of Minnesota released hundreds of documents Monday from its ongoing lawsuit against an Inver Grove Heights charter school, based on the legal claim that school used taxpayer money to promote Islam.

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or TIZA, has been fighting that allegation since 2008, and has been the target of the ACLU lawsuit since 2009.  The school, which also had a campus in Blaine, closed before the 2011-2012 academic year. Its assets are now tied up in a pending bankruptcy case.

"In many ways this would've been a much easier case for the ACLU, bluntly, if instead of alleging a Muslim religion violates the first amendment, it was a Catholic religion," Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota, told reporters.

The ACLU's lawsuit alleged that TIZA used the charter school to further Islam at taxpayer expense, and that TIZA was legally and financially entangled with its landlord, the Minnesota Education Trust and it's fellow tenant, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota.

The pre-trial investigation revealed that some of the same people who served on the board of the Minnesota Education Trust also represented in the Muslim American Society at times and were involved in TIZA.  The school's former executive director, Asad Zaman, played a role in all three entities over the course of time.

The ACLU also named the Minnesota Department of Education and TIZA's original sponsor, Islamic Relief USA, in the same case. But the civil rights advocacy organization has now reached out of court settlements with those defendants.

"If we could get a federal judge to say 'You can't do A,B and C' we could take that ruling to other charter schools and remind them how the courts interpret the laws, and here's what you can and cannot do."

One tangible change will come about as a result of the settlement with the state's education department. All charter schools will now be required to fill out a questionnaire attesting to the fact they are not promoting religion, and clearly stating the connections staff and board members have with sectarian organizations.

Click here to read the new questionnaire from the MDE.

The volumes of documents released Monday were findings of facts stipulated to by the ACLU, Islamic Relief and the Department of Education.  Samuelson said he felt vindicated that two of the three defendants in the lawsuit agreed with the ACLU's versions of the facts.

The ACLU's lead civil attorney on the case, Katie Pfeifer, acknowledged that the odds of a jury trial are now very low because TIZA is in financial and legal limbo. But she said the case is still worth pursuing until there's a settlement or a ruling from the bench.

"With those millions of dollars that TIZA has inappropriately taken from the taxpayers of Minnesota, we believe it's necessary to keep going with the case until we're done," Pfeifer said Monday.

TIZA has not signed off on any of the statements released by the ACLU, insisting that's to be decided by a trial. Mr.  Zaman rejected the notion that the school used taxpayer money inappropriately, and accused the ACLU of pursuing the case to raise money and recover its legal fees. 

"If they wish to make case law they need to find a live school, not a dead one," Zaman told KARE. "That's how the law works."

Zaman cited the fact that TIZA's lease payments to its landlord, were all approved in advance by the Minnesota Department of Education.  He did not address ACLU's contention that TIZA was intertwined with the landlord.

"What the ACLU is doing, they're trying to try this case in the media," Zaman asserted. "These issues are statements of facts that need to be judged by a court of law in a trial."

Islamic Relief U.S.A. could not continue as TIZA's sponsor due to a change in state law requiring that charter school sponsors be based in Minnesota. TIZA closed after failing to line up a sponsor in Minnesota that met the new criteria.

Zaman Monday said the ACLU lawsuit, and the media coverage of the suit, made it difficult for TIZA to find a sponsor to take the place of Islamic Relief.

Among the issues raised by the case are the school's bus schedule, which was designed to fit around the after school activities, including religion classes on campus. 

"When you say it's 'after school' it's readily understood by the children that after school means when you can go home," Samuelson explained. "And when the buses haven't come yet, for children, and for high school kids as well, that means it's not after school."

Zaman said the controversial bus pick-up time, 45 minutes after the end of the school day, was preferred almost universally by the parents.  He said plans were in place to simply extend the school day 45 minutes in 2011-2012, had TIZA remained open.

The ACLU also took issue with the fact that prayer breaks, though legally protected, happened inside the classrooms.

"There is a constitutional law that says when that is appropriate, but in the circumstances of this school with everything else that was going on, we believe and still do that they were crossing the line," Pfeiffer said.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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