A federal judge on Wednesday shot down a Twin Cities charter school's bid to dismiss an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit claiming it promotes Islam, clearing the way for a summer trial.
In a ruling spelling out why the 2-year-old case merits a trial, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank offered an unusually detailed account of close ties between the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy and the religious organizations that acted as its landlords.
TiZA strongly denies allegations that it promotes religion. Its lead attorney cautioned that the Wednesday ruling reflects ACLU allegations that the school will fight at trial.
"The school is looking forward to its day in court," said the attorney, Shamus O'Meara. "There are two sides to this story."
The ruling also saddles the school with about $2 million in legal fees incurred by co-defendants in the case — an expense O'Meara said could shutter the charter school, which has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine.
At a February hearing, Frank suggested he would let the case advance to trial and hold the school liable for the legal fees of two of its co-defendants, the Minnesota Department of Education and its authorizer. Both settled with the ACLU.
In the ruling Wednesday in St. Paul, Frank explained his decision. He also ruled the ACLU can demand the return of millions of dollars in taxpayer money the school has received from the state.
"There's nothing earth-shaking in this ruling, and nothing terribly surprising," said Scott Libin, a spokesman for TiZA.
Chuck Samuelson, the ACLU's executive director in Minnesota, agreed the ruling didn't come as a shock. But he said he was pleasantly surprised by the case that Frank made to keep the matter alive — against the school and against three of its leaders.
In ruling against a defendant seeking to throw out a case, a judge has to present evidence in the most favorable light to the plaintiff. But such a ruling is no indication of how a judge will rule on the overall case.
Frank's ruling cites agreements in which landlords for TiZA transferred campus ownership, which suggests the landlords envisioned a religious purpose to the facilities. The ruling points out that the TiZA officers named in the lawsuit were also involved with the religious organizations that leased the facilities.
In a 2007 agreement transferring TiZA's Inver Grove Heights campus, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota and the nonprofit Minnesota Education Trust, or MET, agreed that the campus would "only be used for charitable, educational, religious and Islamic purposes within the limits ordained by the Quran."
The following year, MET transferred the Blaine campus to a subsidiary, agreeing to pursue the establishment of schools with goals that would include the promotion of Islamic teachings.
In addition, Frank's order points out, TiZA's founder and director, Asad Zaman, has served in various leadership roles at the Muslim American Society and as secretary of MET. Asif Rahman, another defendant in the ACLU case, has served as a TiZA board member and president of MET.
"What we've been saying all along is that these entities are all the same company; it's all the same people," Samuelson said. "It's fascinating to me that the judge has put that out there."
O'Meara said some of the evidence the judge's order cites seems to come from a sealed settlement agreement between the Department of Education and the ACLU. At a hearing next week, Frank will likely decide whether to approve the agreement and make it public.
"We're talking about allegations the ACLU has submitted to the court," O'Meara said. "We're going to wait until that hearing to make a comment on them, other than to say we have a different position."
Frank dismissed the ACLU's individual claims against three TiZA board members, a decision O'Meara welcomed.
The school will likely appeal the judge's decision that put TiZA on the hook for legal fees incurred by its overseer, Islamic Relief-USA, and the Department of Education in the ACLU case. O'Meara said the school's insurance company apparently would not cover the co-defendant expenses.
"It's a significant issue," he said. "It would probably result in TiZA having to close."
The ruling Wednesday does not explain what would happen should TiZA win the case.
The school and the ACLU have agreed on a June start of the trial, though a date has not been set. Frank has yet to decide whether he or a jury will eventually rule on the case.