Charter For Controversy: Religion, State And The Constitution At School

In the final days of his administration, former President George W. Bush issued a report on why our country needs more charter schools. The document even suggested ways that schools might circumvent the constitutional ban of school-sponsored religion.

That's a recipe for controversy, of course. And Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a charter school in Minnesota, is the latest example of how such a dispute can erupt.

As most Americans should know, charter schools are public schools. What makes them different is that they do not have to abide by the same accountability standards as traditional public schools. But the schools are run with taxpayer funds, and for that reason, are still required to abide by the Constitution.

TIZA is a kindergarten through 8th grade charter school. Founded in 2003, it was named after a Muslim military leader who conquered portions of Spain and Portugal during the eighth century.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against the school. In the complaint, the ACLU argues that TIZA promotes religion, violating the Constitution's requirement of church-state separation.

According to the court document, TIZA has prominently posted a prayer in the school's entryway, the cafeteria follows Muslim dietary practices, female teachers and students must follow a dress code that reflects Islamic tradition and prayer meetings are held during school time every Friday, the Muslim holy day.

TIZA is not the only charter school that has been constitutionally questionable in its practices over the years. In 2007, Americans United had to write a letter to a Washington, D.C. charter school asking it to stop headmaster-led prayer and discontinue conducting graduations and other school gatherings in a church sanctuary.

Also in 2007, AU advised a Hebrew charter school in Florida not to use a textbook that offered religious content. Fortunately, after receiving our letter, the school agreed not to use the textbook.

Charter schools are supposed to serve as educational alternatives to the public schools -- using specialized, creative teaching methods. For example, some charter schools teach in a foreign language, such as French or Spanish, as a way for students to really become fluent in a second language.

In order to encourage this innovative teaching style, the government allowed these schools more flexibility and less oversight. And not surprisingly, some religious leaders seem intent on creating charter schools that get public funding but skirt constitutional restrictions.

Advocates of church-state separation will have to watch developments closely to ensure that the First Amendment is respected.