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Debate over separation of mosque and state sparks death threats

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Charles C. Haynes
May 10, 2008

At a charter school in Minnesota, what should have been a “call the lawyers” dispute over religion in the classroom has escalated into a “call the FBI” imbroglio involving death threats against school officials.


Allegations of school-sponsored prayer don’t ordinarily provoke threats of violence. But Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) in Inver Grove Heights is no ordinary public school.


TIZA is a public charter school named for an eighth-century Muslim leader, housed in space leased from the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, with a curriculum that includes Arabic as a second language and a student body that appears to be largely Muslim—a magnet for controversy in post-9/11 America.


Right on cue, controversy arrived last month after Katherine Kersten, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, suggested that TIZA might be an “Islamic school” funded by taxpayers. She offered as Exhibit A the eyewitness account of a substitute teacher who claimed, among other things, that during her one day at the school the Friday assembly was actually a required prayer service attended by all students.


Word of a “madrassah” in Minnesota spread through the Internet like wildfire. A longtime critic of Islam, Robert Spencer, suggested that TIZA might be part of a “grand jihad” bent on undermining Western civilization. Not surprisingly, TIZA now receives what the school’s director describes as “numerous death threats, harassing e-mails, harassing phone calls.”


The hysteria over TIZA is just the latest example of a growing number of attacks on Muslims and Muslim institutions in the United States. The school’s staff is well aware that Islamophobia sometimes goes beyond words and turns violent. As recently as March, a federal grand jury in Nashville handed down an indictment charging three men in connection with an arson fire at the Islamic Center in Columbia, Tenn.


Fortunately, some of the news coverage of the school—especially an investigative report by KARE 11 News in Minneapolis—has provided a more accurate and balanced look at what is actually going on in the school. From these accounts, it would appear that TIZA administrators are sincere in their aim to run a nonsectarian school.


According to the school’s lead teacher, Wendy Swanson-Choi, who has observed every classroom for the past three years, there is no religious instruction during the school day or any pressure by teachers for students to participate in any religious activity.


It’s true that many students do attend Islamic-studies classes taught by community members after school. But this is no different from the Christian Good News Clubs offered after school at many elementary public schools throughout the nation (and upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court).


At the same time, however, TIZA’s efforts to accommodate the religious practices of the mostly Muslim student body might have gone too far. In various news accounts, the school acknowledges that class is interrupted so students can fulfill prayer obligations and that Friday assemblies are indeed prayer services—although the school says all prayers are voluntary and Friday prayers are led by parent volunteers.


Even if the school doesn’t encourage participation (and this is one of the allegations that needs more investigation), the First Amendment has been violated if class is halted for prayer and/or kids go to organized religious services within a public school. Students may pray all they like during their free time. But prayer times can’t be organized or endorsed by the school.


Far from being an Islamic plot to take over America, TIZA would appear to be a charter school with somewhat fuzzy ideas about what is and isn’t permitted under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


Separation of church and state is also separation of mosque and state—and the “public” in public charter school requires TIZA officials to avoid all school sponsorship or endorsement of religion, even while attempting to accommodate the religious needs of students.


TIZA might have crossed a First Amendment line—that’s for the Minnesota Department of Education to determine and, if necessary, to correct. But it should go without saying that in a nation committed to the rule of law, even the most egregious First Amendment violation doesn’t justify hate mail and death threats.


When we need the FBI to protect a school from hate and violence, something has gone terribly wrong in America.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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