In the past week, two defendants in an American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota lawsuit over an alleged incursion of religion into public education have asked for the suit's dismissal — for very different reasons.
The Minnesota Department of Education argues the charter Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, or TiZA, made "multiple misrepresentations" to the state, stymieing efforts at oversight.
In a separate push for dismissal, TiZA argues the ACLU of Minnesota cannot sue because it does not exist.
The group apparently failed to file registration paperwork in 2006.
In 2009, the ACLU sued the school, with campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, saying it promoted religion in violation of the Constitution. It also sued the state for failing to act on alleged problems.
The case has yielded thousands of pages of court records, many of them sealed, and strong emotion.
In a statement Wednesday, the school denied claims by the Education Department and ACLU.
"Instead of wasting our time, energy and taxpayer dollars on a lawsuit rooted in the politics of the previous administration, we hope that the new administration and the ACLU begin to strongly consider the consequences to Minnesota's children," referring to the state's new governor and education commissioner.
Meanwhile, the parties convened for a closed settlement conference in U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank's courtroom earlier this week.
"I hope there will be a settlement because this is a very contentious case," said Chuck Samuelson, the ACLU-MN executive director. "It's become a huge effort on the part of everybody."
He said the ACLU is looking into the paperwork issue and its implications for the suit.
Minnesota's new education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, filed the motion to throw out the ACLU's case against the state Friday.
The state said it investigated all known concerns about the school and can't be held responsible for not acting on concerns it didn't know about. In Minnesota, aside from state-mandated audits, charter-school oversight is driven by specific complaints, court documents explain.
The Education Department's investigations in the past led to several changes at the school, including the removal of religious material on school walls in 2004 and the shortening of a Friday prayer time in 2008.
But during the court case, documents state, the department learned of new allegations and "misrepresentations" by TiZA. Those involve the sharing of resources and staff between the school and its landlord, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota; TiZA's clothing rules; the organization of the school's calendar around Muslim holidays; an Arabic-language curriculum that might have included religious overtones; and efforts to market TiZA as an Islamic school in its early years.
Court documents also say the signature of former Islamic Relief President Ahmad el Bendary was forged on documents used in the department's approval of TiZA as a charter school. In testimony, el Bendary said the signatures were not his, but he stands behind the contents of the documents.
"The Department and Commissioner were not aware of these misrepresentations prior to this litigation, and the Department relied on those misrepresentations in making decisions about TiZA," Karen Klinzing, the acting assistant commissioner, said in an affidavit.
The ACLU has said the department should have been "more curious" about the school in light of the complaints and investigated them more thoroughly.
TiZA has drawn attention for its high student test scores, against the odds: More than 90 percent of the 400 students on the Inver Grove campus are minority, and almost 90 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. In its Wednesday statement, the academy said its focus would remain on student achievement.
In a motion filed this week to dismiss the case against the school, TiZA counters the allegations. The school purged religious references from its Arabic curriculum, court documents say. Because many of its students are Muslim, the school takes into account Islamic holidays on its calendar — just as other public schools have traditionally scheduled vacations to coincide with Christmas and Easter.
In a new argument for dismissing the suit, TiZA offers evidence that the Minnesota secretary of state dissolved the ACLU's Minnesota arm in 2006 after it failed to file registration paperwork. As a "nonexistent entity," the organization, with an office in St. Paul, cannot sue the school, court documents say.
The department and TiZA's authorizer, Islamic Relief USA, also have asked the judge to rule on their claims that the school is obligated to cover their legal fees.
Frank is scheduled to rule on motions to dismiss the case in mid-February.