A June trial is likely in the First Amendment fight between the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and a charter school known as TiZA over the school's alleged promotion of Islam, a federal judge said Friday.
The ACLU contends that the public school promoted Islam and wrongfully accepted taxpayer money while violating the separation between religion and government.
Attorneys for Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) deny that, saying the school was reasonably accommodating requests of students, many of whom are Muslim, as they exercised their religious rights at campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine.
On Friday in St. Paul, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank signed off on a settlement between the ACLU and the school's sponsoring agency, Islamic Relief USA, removing it from the litigation, except for its request that TiZA reimburse it for nearly $1 million in legal costs.
An agreement also has been reached that will remove the Minnesota Department of Education from the suit brought by the ACLU, although the judge has yet to sign that agreement.
Now, with the ACLU and TiZA as main litigants, a trial could last five or six weeks beginning in June, Frank said from the bench Friday.
If TiZA loses, it could be on the hook to repay about $20 million in public money disbursed to the school since 2003, its attorneys said Friday.
It's not clear yet whether TiZA is insured for such losses, said School Board Chairman Mahrous Kandil.
The public school should not receive public funding if the separation between religion and state is not maintained, said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of ACLU in Minnesota.
"We think this is a fundamental issue for charter schools," Shamus O'Meara, lead attorney for TiZA, said Friday. "TiZA is doing the right thing on behalf of its population and partnering with its families to provide not only reasonable accommodations but also an excellent educational experience for its students."
Also Friday, Frank said he was leaning toward approving requests that the school reimburse the six-figure legal costs paid by the Education Department and the nearly $1 million paid by Islamic Relief in the case. He'll rule on that later.
The Dorsey & Whitney law firm of Minneapolis has been providing volunteer lawyers for the ACLU. Samuelson said those attorneys have so far worked at least $2 million worth of labor hours. The ACLU also wants TiZA to pay legal costs, too, including for materials.
The ACLU sued TiZA in January 2009 for allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution by promoting the Islamic religion in a public school. The ACLU also sued the Education Department for failing to adequately supervise the charter school, and Islamic Relief USA.
Under the settlement approved Friday, Islamic Relief admitted no wrongdoing. The settlement terms call for Islamic Relief to pay the ACLU more than $250,000.
Under its pending settlement, the education commissioner would intensify screening of charter schools to make sure they don't illegally promote religion.
This case represents the most money spent on a case by the ACLU of Minnesota in its 50-year history, and also the most time that volunteer attorneys have put into a case, Samuelson said.
"There's been ... a war of motions," he said. "It's been a very acrimonious lawsuit."