Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy is blurring the line between religion and public education, according to a lawsuit to be filed today against the charter school and the state by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit argues that the charter school, which teaches hundreds of Muslim students at its Inver Grove Heights and Blaine campuses, is violating the First Amendment by using taxpayer money to promote religion.
The ACLU claims the school endorses the Muslim religion over other religions or nonsectarian approaches by sharing space with the Muslim American Society, promoting prayer and endorsing Muslim clothing rules and dietary practices.
"This is not a sectarian school that focuses on Middle Eastern culture," said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU's Minnesota chapter. "This is a pervasively Muslim school that teaches religion."
Charters are publicly funded schools that operate outside the traditional school district system. They must find a sponsor and get approval by the state education department.
The Minnesota Department of Education was named in the suit because it failed to oversee the goings-on at the school, Samuelson said.
"We're doing their job," he said. "We shouldn't have to be filing this lawsuit."
The ACLU argues TiZA and the Muslim American Society of Minnesota are linked by a "complex interconnecting set of personal, corporate and operational relationships." The suits says those relationships include:
- Officials from the society have served in prominent leadership roles at the school.
- TiZA's Inver Grove Heights campus is in the same building as the Muslim American Society's mosque and headquarters. And the society's Blaine chapter has used the telephone number at the charter's Blaine campus to conduct business.
- The Muslim American Society has offered an after-school Muslim studies program at the Inver Grove Heights campus and has conducted prayer sessions at TiZA during school hours.
The lawsuit also contends TiZA endorses Muslim religious practices by:
- Having a prayer posted prominently in the school's entryway, permitting prayer sessions during school hours, and having teacher-sanctioned religious material posted on classroom bulletin boards.
- Allowing students and teachers to gather for 30 minutes of communal prayer every Friday. Both TiZA and the Muslim American Society have used their Web sites to seek parent volunteers to help with the prayer session.
- Giving preference to Muslim clothing rules. Girls, but not boys, are prohibited from wearing short sleeves. They also are required to wear skirts or trousers of a certain length. And female teachers have to be covered from neck to wrist and ankle.
This isn't the first time TiZA has caught public scrutiny. Last year, a columnist for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis wrote that the school mixed the roles of religion and public education. Katherine Kersten's column aired a substitute teacher's allegations that school officials promoted Islam in the classroom.
That sparked an investigation by the state education department, which recommended the charter school modify its communal prayers on Fridays and provide after-school busing at different times for students who are not participating in religious activities.
And the lawsuit comes at a time when state lawmakers say scrutinizing and tightening rules for charter schools is at the top of their legislative agenda.
Proposed changes include requiring sponsors to better monitor their schools' financial and academic performance, reducing board members' conflicts of interest and clarifying how charters can spend money they receive for leasing space.
Megan Boldt can be reached at 651-228-5495.