The standoff between the American Civil Liberties Union and a Twin Cities charter school it accuses of promoting religion is hurtling toward a June trial.
Though he did not issue a formal ruling, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank suggested Friday that he was not swayed by the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy's bid to throw out the case.
"I frankly anticipate that the case will be going to trial," he said.
Meanwhile, efforts to settle the case out of court have yielded little progress — even as the ALCU has reached a deal with the Minnesota Department of Education and the charter's overseer, the two co-defendants in the suit.
"There really isn't agreement on anything," said Peter Lancaster, the ACLU's lead attorney, referring to talks with TiZA.
What the two sides did agree on was an early summer start for the trial, which they hope to wrap up before the start of next school year. The publicly funded academy has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine.
One factor that could throw off these plans, Donovan said, is an appeal by TiZA students and parents seeking to join the lawsuit to ensure the charter continues to offer religious accommodations, such as prayer time and no school on Islamic holidays.
On Thursday, an appeals court heard the parents' case, and Donovan expressed concern that a ruling in their favor could stretch out the 2009 lawsuit.
Donovan also tentatively sided with the Education Department and Islamic Relief USA, the school's authorizer, in their demands that TiZA cover their legal expenses.
In its latest attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, TiZA led with a new argument: Shamus O'Meara, the school's lead counsel, argued that the ACLU of Minnesota cannot sue because the secretary of state dissolved it in 2006 after it failed to file registration paperwork.
O'Meara bashed ACLU leaders for the paperwork lapse. "They have to comply with the law, and they didn't," he said.
The ACLU argued it has the right to sue as an unincorporated association on behalf of its members.
In addition, TiZA attorneys again dismissed ACLU charges that the school promoted religion in violation of the Constitution, arguing that the charter simply made accommodations for its many Muslim students.
Donovan did not elaborate on why he anticipates the case will go to trial, though he pointed out earlier that if he dismisses the suit based on the ACLU paperwork lapse, the group, with a renewed registration, could refile that same day.
TiZA attorneys also argued against claims by the Education Department and Islamic Relief that the school is obligated to pay their legal fees in the case. It is not clear what these fees are, but an Education Department attorney said the state's bill alone had run into the six figures.
The state and Islamic Relief have said that obligation is spelled out in Minnesota's charter school statute and the school's 2009 contract.
TiZA's main argument is that the ACLU sued the Education Department and Islamic Relief for what the group claimed was their insufficient oversight of the school's activities. So, in effect, the two co-defendants brought on legal expenses through their own actions rather than any actions by TiZA.
Islamic Relief attorney Scott Ward said that argument put the school in an "untenable position": It has strongly denied ACLU's claims that it violated the state constitution while insisting the state and its overseer got themselves in legal trouble because they didn't keep an eye out for possible violations.
"How can Islamic Relief be negligent in identifying violations that TiZA claims did not occur?" he asked.
Both the Education Department and Islamic Relief have denied wrongdoing in settling with the ACLU.
The ACLU and TiZA expressed hope for the timely start of the trial, which attorneys estimated could take as many as five weeks. Donovan said he, too, trusts the trial won't face any major delays.
"I shudder to think of the effect on the students and the school," Donovan said. "They lie in the balance."