April 2011 Church & State | People & Events

A legal dispute over the role of Islam in a public charter school in Minnesota has been partially settled.The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota announced that it has reached a settlement with state officials over activities at Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a charter school that teaches children in kindergarten through 10th grade, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The school has campuses in Inver Grove Heights and Blaine, both suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul.Although charter schools are free from some of the regulations imposed on traditional public institutions, they are tax funded and are not permitted to teach religion. The ACLU asserted that Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy had run afoul of the law and that the school was “replete with religious instruction.”In 2008, a substitute teacher complained that school officials had sponsored a religious assembly that opened with prayer. She also said the school was regularly offering a course in “Islamic studies.”The ACLU investigated the matter and found that the school’s Inver Grove Heights location was also the site of a mosque. School officials would not cooperate with the ACLU’s inquiry, so a lawsuit was filed.Under the terms of the settlement, education officials in Minnesota have agreed to more closely monitor charter schools to make certain they are not promoting religion. In addition, Islamic Relief, the organization that sponsored the school, has agreed to pay the ACLU more than $260,000 in attorneys’ fees.Peter Lancaster, an attorney who worked on the case for the ACLU, told the Star-Tribune, “I think the ACLU wants other [charter school] sponsors to know that sponsoring a religious school can be an expensive proposition.”The newspaper reported that Islamic Relief denies wrongdoing but has agreed not to seek incorporation in Minnesota, which means the group will have to stop sponsoring the school. Officials at the academy, however, insist they have done nothing wrong and have resisted settling their part of the case.Lancaster said part of the settlement calls on Islamic Relief and the ACLU to issue a list of facts about the school and how it operates. The attorney said he supports making the document public because it carries the “power of sunlight.”Added Lancaster, “We think that this school has operated in secrecy for too long.”Charter schools with religious overtones have appeared in other parts of the country. In some cases, religious groups have claimed that they have secularized formerly religious schools to make them eligible for public funding as charters. Groups like the ACLU and Americans United continue to monitor the situation.