A federal judge Tuesday allowed part of a lawsuit to go forward against Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy that claims the Inver Grove Heights charter school blurred the line between religion and public education.
"The most important take-away from the decision is that the court recognized that we have taxpayer standing to bring the case," said Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "We will be able to exercise one of our roles in protecting public money and protecting the use of public money."
The school's sponsor, Islamic Relief USA, and Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren also are named in the suit.
The charter school, known as TiZA, was founded in 2003 and teaches about 430 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine. The school got about $3.8 million in state aid this year.
The lawsuit argues that TiZA violates the First Amendment of the Constitution by sharing space with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, promoting prayer in school, and endorsing Muslim clothing rules and dietary practices. The suit also says TiZA "advances, endorses, and prefers the 'Muslim religion' over other religious or nonsectarian approaches and fosters entanglement between government and religion."
The First Amendment says, in part, "Congress can make no law respecting the establishment of religion." The provision extends to the states, the U.S. Supreme Court has held.
"TiZA remains confident that there is no violation of the Establishment Clause," the school's legal counsel, Erick Kaardal, said in a statement Tuesday. "The ACLU must prove that TiZA, which has made religious accommodations for students and is compliant with the federal government's official guidance on religion in public schools, has violated the Establishment Clause."
TiZA and other defendants sought the lawsuit's dismissal, arguing that the case should have been first heard administratively within the state Education Department before it was brought in court.
However, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank allowed the lawsuit to continue because taxpayers fund the school.
"Specifically, plaintiff has met the first prong by alleging that the commissioner caused taxpayer funds to be distributed under state funding statutes and the second prong by alleging that those funds were distributed to a pervasively sectarian group in violation of the Establishment Cause," he wrote.
The school also claimed it resolved some issues in the lawsuit.
After a 2008 investigation, the state Education Department recommended the charter school modify its communal prayers on Fridays and provide after-school busing at different times for students not participating in religious activities. TiZA officials have said they have taken corrective actions on those issues.
But the judge said the school did not correct or address all the claimed First Amendment violations, such as its religiously based dress code. If TiZA voluntarily corrected the complained-about behavior, the school could resume the activities at any time, he wrote.
The court refused to dismiss Islamic Relief as a defendant, because the group is the charter's sponsor and is responsible for oversight functions, including fiscal and student performance requirements, Frank wrote.
Maricella Miranda can be reached at 651-228-5421.