As they head to a summer trial, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and a metro-area charter school it accuses of promoting religion disagree whether a jury or judge should get the 2-year-old federal case.
The ALCU wants a bench trial, in which a judge would decide whether the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy blended public education and religion in violation of the constitution.
TiZA counters that that demand is an assault on its constitutional right to a jury trial.
In civil cases, defendants are entitled to a jury trial when the plaintiff's goal is to collect damages. The two sides in this case disagree on whether millions in state aid, which the ACLU has demanded the school give back, constitute damages.
"The ACLU is seeking millions of dollars from our client; they are seeking the return of money paid to our executive director," said Shamus O'Meara, TiZA's lead counsel. "This case has money written all over it."
The ACLU sued TiZA, which serves about 520 students on campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, in 2009. The suit alleged that practices at the school — from the dress code to the Arabic curriculum to after-school activities — promote religion. The school has strongly denied those charges.
The case is headed to a June trial, which could take five to six weeks.
Until recently, O'Meara said, the school and the ACLU agreed they should press their cases in front of a jury. But the ACLU has now made a motion to strike
demands for a jury trial.
Chuck Samuelson, the Minnesota executive director for the ACLU, says a bench trial is appropriate because the organization is not seeking damages but rather an injunction: It alleges TiZA furthers religion and wants it to stop. The bulk of the dollars at stake would go back to the state, not the ACLU.
"The money we seek is not because you damaged us," he said. "It's because you violated the Constitution, and you need to stop."
The ACLU wants the school to repay the state a portion of $22 million in taxpayer-funded school aid and cover the ACLU's legal costs, which have so far reached roughly $2.5 million.
And that, O'Meara said, clearly makes this a case about money.
"From our client's perspective, it's rather surprising that the ACLU, which exists to protect the constitutional rights of citizens, would seek to strip our client's constitutional right to a jury trial," he said.
Eileen Scallen, an expert in federal civil procedure at William Mitchell College of Law, said a demand to cover a plaintiff's legal fees does not constitute damages. But when it comes to the state aid repayment, it's harder to make a clean-cut case.
"The judge in the case will have to decide who is right," she said.
Though both sides declined to speculate on which type of trial improves their odds, strategy often plays into a legal team's preference, Scallen said.
A jury trial carries with it the risk of juror bias, but in questioning prospective jurors, TiZA's legal team could weed out those who harbor such bias, Scallen said. On the other hand, a jury might be more responsive to common-sense arguments about the traditional overlap between education and religion, for instance, in timing school breaks to coincide with Christian holidays.
"They have to tie their situation to one the public can empathize with," Scallen said. "And the public is very conflicted about these issues."
District Judge Donovan Frank will decide on the trial question at an April 29 hearing, when he also is scheduled to rule on a settlement between the ACLU and the Minnesota Department of Education.