School accused of promoting Islam countersues ACLU

Kindergarten students study Arabic
Kindergarten students study Arabic at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

A controversial charter school in Inver Grove Heights accused of promoting religion with taxpayer money is countersuing the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Earlier this year, the ACLU sued the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or TiZA, alleging the school illegally promotes religion by doing things like holding prayer during class time.

The lawsuit followed months of controversy, including claims by a substitute teacher that students were being led in school-sanctioned prayer.

Now, the school has countersued.

TiZA, which has about 400 students on campuses in Blaine and Inver Grove Heights, serves mostly immigrant children from Muslim countries. The vast majority are from Somalia.

TiZA officials say religious activities at the schools are optional. They said the lawsuit has prompted students to withdraw from the academy and that at least 10 prospective teachers withdrew their job applications, leaving the school short staffed. The school is now seeking more than $100,000 in damages from the ACLU.

State law requires publicly funded schools, such as TiZA, to be non-sectarian.

Arabic class
Arabic class at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The school offers Arabic language classes and school leaders noted that parents find it important to have time set aside for Muslim prayer - and that time is optional.

But the ACLU claims that lost classroom time is never made up. The federal lawsuit also questions the relationship between the academy and its charter school sponsor, California-based Islamic Relief USA.

The ACLU also claims a prayer is illegally posted at the school's entrance and it questions the school's dress code, which prohibits girls from wearing short sleeves per Muslim clothing rules. And the suit notes that school buses don't pick up kids until an hour after class ends, with the gap being filled with a Muslim studies program that most kids are enrolled in.

Earlier this week, a federal judge allowed most of the lawsuit to continue, saying that the ACLU does have standing. Some of the case's claims, though, were dismissed, including all but one against the state Education Department. The state originally was named in the suit because the ACLU claimed it was offering lax, if any, oversight of the school and the roughly $3.8 million in taxpayer money it was to get in 2008-2009.

Judge Donovan Frank noted the importance of 'taxpayer standing' in this case because it "seems unlikely that a parent or student of TiZA, who presumably attends the school because of its particularized program, would challenge the program of choice."

"We are grateful that the judge held that we have standing in this case," ACLU-MN Executive Director Chuck Samuelson said earlier this week in a statement. "We believe that it is important to ensure that taxpayer funds are used appropriately. TiZA has received millions of dollars of taxpayer funds and we have the right to question how these public funds are being used."

First grader
A first grader at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The Tiza Academy released a statement of their own in response: "As this case enters into the next stage, we remain confident the court will continue to thoughtfully weigh the arguments and conclusively rule in favor of TiZA," said Erick Kaardal, Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy's legal counsel.

The state education department said it will review the remaining claim it faces.

"The department expects that all charter schools comply with Minnesota law, including the provision that requires charter schools remain nonsectarian," Deputy Commissioner Chas Anderson said. "We continue to closely monitor the operations of TiZA Academy."

(Staff Writer Tom Weber contributed to this report.)