ACLU Hopes to Draw “Bright Line” Between Religion & Secular, Charter Schools (by Katie Kubitskey)

MA student Katie Kubitskey

This post is written in conjunction with the Religion and Law in the U.S.” course dialogue project and is directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

It’s not often that one sees a conservative Christian journalist and a church-state watchdog organization playing for the same team. However, the two joined forces in 2009 to raise a case against the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a public charter school that both parties accused of promoting Islam. The accusation was brought to the public eye in an article in 2008 written by Star Tribune columnist, Katherine Kirsten, and was adopted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2009. The ACLU officially filed suit against the school for violating both Minnesota and United States Establishment Clauses in their use of public funding for a “religious” school. By pursuing this case, the ACLU hoped to make an example of the Academy by showing where religious accommodation is acceptable and where it is unconstitutional. However, as the case nears a settlement three years later and the school shuts its doors, the line remains blurry at best.

Student at the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TiZA) was granted a charter by the Minnesota Department of Education and opened its doors in 2003 to the children of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, a predominantly Somali population. The Academy’s mission statement reads that the school’s specialized curriculum promotes a learning environment that “recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.” The school holds daily after-school prayer sessions but does not advertise any specific tie with the Islamic faith.

Inhabiting a unique middle ground between the public and the private school systems, charter schools receive public funding but are free from certain governmental regulations that other public schools adhere to. Although required to find a location for the school (without governmental aid) and a reasonable sponsor, charter schools are free to formulate a system that meets only basic public school standards (i.e. the length of school years and graduation requirements). This freedom allows for unique learning environments that can be catered to benefit certain populations as long as the school remains nonsectarian. In compliance with the Minnesota Charter School Law, TiZA established itself as a tenant of a non-for-profit organization, the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and contracted Islamic Relief USA as its sponsor.

After the 2008 Star Tribune article, Chuck Samuelson of Minnesota’s ACLU chapter began investigating the relationship of TiZA with the Islamic faith, accumulating reasons to believe that the Academy was in violation of the Minnesota statute as well as the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. With sufficient evidence, the ACLU brought successful accusations against the Academy and won the favor of the District Court of Minnesota (and later, the Court of Appeals). The ACLU successfully convinced the Court that TiZA promoted “religious” favoritism to Islam through these undisputed facts:

1)  TiZA permitted prayers to be posted prominently in the school’s entryway

2)  Prayer sessions were held during school hours

3)  Teacher-sanctioned religious material was posted in classrooms

4)  Parent-led or volunteer-led prayer took place during class-time

5)  Teachers participated in prayer activities

6)  School transportation was only offered after Islamic studies program finished at end of day

In addition to this, the ACLU revealed that TiZA was entangled in personal and corporate relationships with its landlord and its sponsor who, by association, aided in establishing school policies that promoted religion. Therefore, with proof that public tax funds were used to establish a school that promoted religion, the Court agreed that there was a violation of the Minnesota Statute and the Establishment Clause.

TiZA filed numerous counter-arguments against the ACLU throughout the case. While many dealt with very specific details, the most prominent argument stated that their school was not endorsing a certain religious belief but was accommodating the beliefs of the school’s predominantly Muslim population. Furthermore, they argued that this accommodation is protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Although granted hearing in the Eighth District Court of Appeals (written here in full), TiZA was ultimately unsuccessful in reversing the Court’s judgement. Lacking the ability to find a permissible sponsor, TiZA ended its program in 2010.

An interesting settlement was reached last week between the school’s sponsor (Islamic Relief USA), the Minnesota Board of Education, and the ACLU. The Court concluded that Minnesota charter schools will have to sign an annual disclosure form that insures that they are not promoting religion in their schools. Samuelson, the ACLU’s executive director, is quoted in the article hoping to draw a “bright line” between religion and other charter schools as an example to prevent this sort of unconstitutional activity in the future.

While the revised Minnesota Charter Law will attempt to “brighten” this line between religion and the secular school system (by having schools admit whether or not they are improperly sectarian), this practice will not help to dictate the difference between the accommodation and establishment of religion. Although the closure of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy could potentially serve as an intimidating example to other religiously driven charter schools, the laws that foster the formation of such programs are still in place and are still sufficiently vague, leaving the line between religious accommodation and endorsement inevitably blurred.

Katie Kubitskey is a Masters student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University and works with the Claremont School of Theology to pursue a degree in Political Theory and Ethics. She explores the contemporary dialogue surrounding religion and violence in the public sphere.

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