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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Taxpayers in Minnesota Paying For An Islamic School?


On March 9, 2008, A Star columnist, Katherine Kersten, asked if the taxpayers in Minnesota were paying for an Islamic School.

She was reporting about the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), which is supposedly a charter school. By law, a charter school is a public school and cannot endorse or promote religion.

The article pointed out that the TIZA was originally intended to be a private school, which can endorse religion, but due to the fact that many of the 300 students are low-income Muslim immigrant families, those families could not afford a private school.

In fact, TIZA was originally envisioned as a private Islamic school. In 2001, MAS-MN negotiated to buy the current TIZA/MAS-MN building for Al-Amal School, a private religious institution in Fridley, according to Bruce Rimstad of the Inver Grove Heights School District. But many immigrant families can't afford Al-Amal. In 2002, Islamic Relief -- headquartered in California -- agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school, TIZA, at the same location.

On TIZA's website and public documents, they speak in terms of culture rather than religion but as Kersten pointed out, that line is often blurry and journalists that have been allowed inside of the school say, "A visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school. "

Since that column was written, the writer has dug a little deeper and has broken what she calls the "wall of silence", by obtaining an interview with a substitute teacher from that school.

Emails between Katherine Kersten to Asad Zaman found here.

That substitute teacher is Amanda Getz from Bloomington, who worked as a substitute in two fifth-grade classrooms at TIZA on Friday, March 14, 2008.

Afterward, Getz said, "teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap, who had been at the school all day," was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man "was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as the students entered."

"The prayer I saw was not voluntary," Getz said. "The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred."

Islamic Studies was also incorporated into the school day. "When I arrived, I was told 'after school we have Islamic Studies,' and I might have to stay for hall duty," Getz said. "The teachers had written assignments on the blackboard for classes like math and social studies. Islamic Studies was the last one -- the board said the kids were studying the Qu'ran. The students were told to copy it into their planner, along with everything else. That gave me the impression that Islamic Studies was a subject like any other."

Kersten requested a visit to the school to see for herself, that visit was declined by TIZA's executive director, Asad Zaman, is a Muslim imam, or religious leader, and its sponsor is an organization called Islamic Relief.

According to the US Department of Education is a written statement it says:

The guidance clarifies the rights of students to pray in public schools. As stated in the guidance, "...the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals" such as students. Therefore, "[a]mong other things, students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities." Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families.

At the same time, school officials may not "compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities." Nor may teachers, school administrators and other school employees, when acting in their official capacities as representatives of the state, encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students.

Students are allowed to pray, but the school is not allowed to force them nor "encourage" them to do so.

This makes the substitutes teacher's witnessing the students being required to go to the prayer assembly and well as the school officials pushing them to do, illegal under the law.

The ACLU of Minnesota has launched an investigation into the allegation that a publicly funded school (TIZA) is violating the law in their religious teachings, instead of changing their status to private school which would not longer make it paid for by the taxpayers of that state.

After receiving complaints that Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights is violating the Establishment Clause the ACLU-MN sent a letter to the academy questioning their practices. In the letter that was sent the ACLU-MN questions some of their practices, including addressing allegations that the school sponsors prayer.

Teresa Nelson, an attorney for the ACLU of Minnesota, says "We currently do not have enough facts to state whether or not the school is in violation of the establishment clause. The American Civil Liberties Union is a strong defender of separation of church and state and will take action if we find they are violating the establishment clause."

The letter that the ACLU of Minnesota has sent to the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy can be found here. (2 page PDF file).

Minnesota's Department of Education will be launching an investigation as well.