We've written a lot about the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy K-8 public charter school in suburban St. Paul. It appears to be is an Islamic school operating illegally at taxpayer expense. Among other things, school executive director Asad Zaman is an imam and almost all of its students are Muslim. As a charter school it was originally sponsored by Islamic Relief USA. The school is housed in a building that was owned by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. The study of Arabic is required at the school. The Arabic comes in handy for the Koranic studies that follow the regular school day.
The ACLU Minnesota has brought a lawsuit challenging the legality of the school's operation on public funds; the lawsuit is pending in federal court in Minnesota. Prompted by the reportage of then-Star Tribune metro columnist Katherine Kersten, the ACLU Minnesota commenced an investigation of the school. Concluding that the school was in fact operating illegally as a religious institution, the ACLU Minnesota filed the lawsuit. The ACLU Minnesota is represented in the lawsuit by Dorsey & Whitney, one of the most prominent law firms in the state.
Discussing the lawsuit, ACLU Minnesota executive director Chuck Samuelson observed: "The issue with TiZA, frankly, was the incredible commingling of church and state. It's a theocratic school. It is as plain as the substantial nose on my face." As a result of Samuelson's statement of the ACLU Minnesota's position in the lawsuit, TiZA alleged that Samuelson and the ACLU had defamed it, asserting several counterclaims against the ACLU Minnesota for amounts in excess of $100,000 (i.e., an unlimited amount).
The ACLU Minnesota's lawsuit against TiZA is predicated on the establishment clause of the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court. I was quite sure that there was another clause of the First Amendment that applied to TiZA's counterclaims against the ACLU Minnesota, but even the common law of defamation provides that truth is a defense.
In the event, Minnesota federal district Judge Donovan Frank summarily dismissed TiZA's counterclaims. In an order issued in late 2009, Judge Frank held that, as a public school, TiZA could not assert a claim for defamation.
As to the merits of TiZA's defamation and defamation-related claims, Judge Frank held that "the allegedly defamatory statements all reflect Plaintiff's belief [that TiZA is illegally operating as a religious school] and TiZA has alleged no facts that would demonstrate that Plaintiff entertains any doubts as to the truth of its statements." TiZA therefore had "wholly failed" to allege facts making out the actual malice constitutionally required to support a claim of defamation by a public official or, Judge Frank held, a public school.
In asserting its defamation and defamation-related counterclaims against Samuelson and the ACLU Minnesota, TiZA was taking a leaf from the old Islamist playbook written by CAIR. The irony in this case is that TiZA pretends to be a nonsectarian institution; it is this pretense that goes to the heart of the pending lawsuit.
In a subsequent Star Tribune op-ed column, Kersten reported on affidavits filed in the pending lawsuit against TiZA. The affidavits suggest that TiZA has been engaged in serious acts of intimidation to prevent the truth about the school from emerging.
Kersten reported that the ACLU Minnesota "sought a protective order, telling the court that intimidation by TiZA was discouraging potential witnesses from appearing. On February 10, [2010,] the court barred witness harassment or intimidation by either party." Yes, as anyone who has met the affable Chuck Samuelson knows, the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU can really be a bitch.
In a subsequent Star Tribune op-ed column, Kersten updated the story regarding the court's disposition of issues related to TiZA's attempt to prevent witnesses from testifying or otherwise disclosing information relevant to the issues in the lawsuit. She noted that the court had entered an order providing in part: "[TiZA's] behavior during the discovery process thus far ... has not been consistent with a good faith search for the truth."
Kersten quoted the Dorsey firm's assessment of the evidence uncovered in the case so far in a letter filed with the court on a discovery-related issue: "The ACLU believes Mr. Zaman's testimony relating to control of virtually every significant event at TiZA, MAS-MN, MET and MET's subsidiaries, coupled with his efforts to hide such control, constitute powerful evidence against TiZA's denials that it is a Muslim school and that it funnels state and federal money to other Muslim organizations."
From TiZA's behavior in the lawsuit, you might almost think that the school has something to hide. And you would be right. In a recently filed motion, the Minnesota Department of Education discloses a few of the items that TiZA has been trying to hide.
Through the formal discovery conducted in the litigation, the Department of Education concludes that it has been had. Among the department's discoveries in the litigation is the fact that TiZA has made multiple misrepresentations to the department.
These misrepresentations include potential conflicts of interest between TiZA and its sectarian landlord, TiZA's relationship and shared resources with its sectarian co-tenant, and the sectarian nature of TiZA's curriculum. According to the department -- as set forth in the affidavit of Deputy Commissioner of Education Karen Klinzing -- these misrepresentations formed the basis for the department's determination that TiZA was operating legally.
In August 2010 the department was also informed for the first time that the signatures of Islamic Relief USA's former president were forged on numerous documents submitted to the department between 2002 and 2005. One of the forged signatures was that on the original affidavit of intent to sponsor a charter school submitted by Islamic Relief USA and subsequent school applications for site and grade expansion.
The Minnesota Department of Education sounds a little bit like Captain Renault in Casblanca. It is shocked, shocked to discover that, when its back is turned, Islam has been taught at a school headed by an imam and named for a great Muslim conqueror. Even Inspector Clouseau might have been able to crack this case, at least with a little help from Katherine Kersten.
You have to wonder if the school isn't a criminal enterprise headed by a guy who should be reflecting on his wrongdoing inside a cell somewhere. Instead the Star Tribune has signed him up to opine on educational issues as one of its "community voices."
I have a question for the Star Tribune. Does anyone over there read the paper? If so, you might have noticed that that's a helluva "community voice" you're broadcasting.
Kersten concluded her most recent column on TiZA with this pointed observation: "Every time we read about this lawsuit, we have to pinch ourselves and say: We're talking about a public, taxpayer-funded school." The pending lawsuit is important, and not just for the result to which it might give rise when it is concluded. Along the way it is producing revelations that deserve attention regardless of the result.