The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Monday that they’ve reached a partial settlement in a court case involving an Islamic public charter school that blurred the lines between church and state.
The case, which has been going on for more than two years, has drawn a lightning-storm of controversy that had Christian conservatives and church-state watchdogs fighting alongside one another.
In 2009, the ACLU of Minnesota filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Education, the school and the school’s sponsors.
The case made for strange bedfellows. Katherine Kersten, a conservative Christian columnist at the Star Tribune and longtime critic of Islam, first broke the news in early 2008 that the school might be breaking the law. She followed up with a report from a Republican activist who also happened to be a substitute teacher at the school.
The ACLU, an organization that Kersten has been sharply critical of, picked up on the story and launched an investigation and then a lawsuit.
On Thursday, the school’s sponsor, the Minnesota Department of Education and the ACLU reached a partial settlement in the case. Under the terms, the Minnesota Department of Education must require charter schools to sign an annual statement declaring under penalty of law that the schools are not promoting religion.
In addition, the parties to the case released a set of facts that demonstrate the entanglement of religion with state in the school, which was called Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA). It closed last year because it could not find a charter school sponsor.
The facts released in the case paint a portrait of a school using public money to advance a religious mission: the school illegally transferred money to its religious landlords, specifically an organization called Minnesota Education Trust whose mission is to “present the image of Islam.”
The school was marketed to Muslims as a school that followed Islamic law. Landlords for the school prohibited anything in the building that went against Islamic teaching. In its IRS tax filings, the school’s sponsor listed as its accomplishments that it created a “charter school to promote the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims,” and numerous fundraising materials mentioned the school as part of promoting Islam in Minnesota.
When the Muslim American Society of Minnesota conducted after school religious trainings, the school gave the group free space, the school did not offer buses to students who did not want to attend the trainings, and even threatened to mark them absent if they didn’t attend. Many of the teachers at the school were the instructors for the after school courses and those who didn’t teach Islamic religious courses were not allowed to leave until the courses were ended for the day.
Textbooks used during class time to teach Arabic focused on the Quran.
Over $3 million in state and federal funds went to benefit two religious entities—the Minnesota chapter of the Muslim American Society and the Minnesota Education Trust—in the form of improvements to the TIZA campuses and rent payments. When those campuses were remodeled—in one case to install foot sinks for use in Islamic religious tradition—the landlords provided no financial support.
“The Court’s decision and our settlement with the Department of Education are bittersweet. We remain sad that TIZA’s administrators and supporters hunkered down for years rather than changing their practices to conform to the Constitution and Minnesota law,” Charles Samuelson, executive director of the ACLU-MN, said in a statement on Monday. “Sadly, this case highlights the problems that can arise from the lack of transparency in public charter school laws.”
The ACLU’s attorney’s say they asked for the release of the facts of the case because TIZA had repeatedly sought to keep them from public inspection.
“We are pleased with the court order because we have long believed that TIZA misused the court’s protective order to maintain the secrecy of documents that the public has a right to see, because they show how TIZA was using public funds,” said Peter Lancaster, an attorney with Dorsey and Whitney who worked on the case.