Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Federal Court Hears Challenge to Arizona Tax Credit Program

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard a three-year-old challenge to Arizona's individual tax credit scholarship program in late January, but gave no indication as to when it might render a decision. The case marked the first time a federal appellate court has heard such a case since the U.S. Supreme Court declared Cleveland's citywide school voucher program constitutional in 2002.

At issue in Winn v. Garriot is Arizona's 10-year-old tuition tax credit program, under which individuals receive credits on their personal income taxes for making donations to school tuition organizations (STOs), which enable parents to send their children to the private school of their choice.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging the program's constitutionality, claiming it violates the federal Establishment Clause, said Tim Keller, the Institute for Justice attorney who argued the case on behalf of several Arizona families. "The argument [the ACLU] made in their briefs is that it has the forbidden effect of advancing religion, because of the high percentage of parents who choose, of their own accord, to send their children to private religious schools," Keller said. "That argument seemed to change a bit at the hearing--they said that for a scholarship organization to have religious affiliations violates the Constitution, and that a scholarship-granting organization must fund the entire universe of private schools to avoid an Establishment Clause violation," Keller explained.

Precedent falls on the side of school choice. Winn v. Garriot was originally filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona in February 2000; that court dismissed the challenge and upheld the law in March 2005. A previous challenge to the program, Kotterman v. Killian, was dismissed by the Arizona Supreme Court in January 1999 and by the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1999. Both courts found the program to be legal under the U.S. Constitution.

Approximately 25,000 children in Arizona currently receive scholarships to attend the school of their family's choosing through the individual tax credit program. The state operates a similar program that grants tax credits to corporations donating to STOs, which the ACLU is also challenging in a separate case filed last year, as well as voucher programs for foster kids and disabled students. Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island offer corporate tax credit programs as well.

Keller says it would be "absurd" for the Ninth Circuit to strike down the individual tax credit program in Arizona. "The Establishment Clause is concerned with the state remaining neutral regarding religion, and that any funds flowing to religious institutions not be directed by a state actor," Keller explained. "In this case, only private individuals decide which STOs to fund in the first place, and only parents decide which STOs they'll apply to to fund their particular [school] choice. "All the legal precedents have said repeatedly the constitutionality doesn't hinge on where and how the beneficiaries of a particular program intend to use their benefits," Keller continued. "You have to look at all the educational options the state provides. "Arizona has open enrollment, charter schools, magnet schools, a family-friendly homeschool policy, the corporate tax credit program, and two voucher programs," Keller said. "To look at all that and think a parent could possibly be coerced into choosing a religious option is absurd."

Other experts agree. In Missouri, a bill to create a tuition tax credit program similar to Arizona's is pending in the state legislature, and a study showing the benefits such a program would have for the state's residents was released in mid-January by the Show-Me Institute, a think tank based in St. Louis. "Wealthier Missourians already have choice options. We're trying to extend that choice to all Missourians," explained Justin P. Hauke, a policy analyst with the group. "We've estimated that the tuition tax credit bills currently under consideration in the Missouri General Assembly have the potential to save the state up to $14 million per year. "Such legislation is a win-win for everyone," Hauke continued. "It allows taxpayers to target their tax dollars toward education and meaningful reform, it provides options to thousands of Missouri families who otherwise would have little control over their educational options, and it saves the state money."

According to a similar study released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Options, a national group based in Indianapolis, Arizona's tax credit program has saved the state nearly $18 million since its inception.


Imams promote 'our values' on taxpayer dime

Academy's goal to 'appreciate traditions, histories of Asia, Middle East'

A charter school for kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., is named after a Muslim warlord, shares the address of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, is led by two imams, is composed almost exclusively (99 percent) of blacks, many Somalis, and has as its top goal to preserve "our values." And it uses funds from taxpayers of Minnesota.

The school's agenda was revealed by Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten, who noted that she asked for permission to visit the school and interview officials for her report, but was denied. The school also declined to return a WND telephone request for an interview.

But it has been drawing objections from a number of people, including Robert Spencer, the expert who monitors such developments at Jihad Watch. "Can you imagine a public school founded by two Christian ministers, and housed in the same building as a church? Add to that – in the same building – a prominent chapel. And let's say the students are required to fast during Lent, and attend Bible studies right after school. All with your tax dollars," he wrote. "Inconceivable? Sure. If such a place existed, the ACLU lawyers would descend on it like locusts. It would be shut down before you could say 'separation of church and state,' to the accompaniment of New York Times and Washington Post editorials full of indignant foreboding, warning darkly about the growing influence of the Religious Right in America."

But the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, which was named after the Muslim warlord who invaded and conquered Spain a millennium ago, has drawn no such protests, Spencer wrote. He called the academy "yet another manifestation of the witless multiculturalism that grants protected victim status to Muslim groups in view of the 'racism' and 'Islamophobia' from which the supposedly suffer. Latitude that would never be granted to other faith groups, particularly Christians, is readily given here."

Kersten revealed there actually were many more links between the tax-supported school and Islam. The academy features a carpeted space for prayer, serves halal food in the cafeteria, has all students fast during Ramadan, features after-school classes for students on the Quran and Sunnah, and the program for the 2007 MAS-Minnesota convention, under the motto "Establishing Islam in Minnesota" asked the question, "Did you know that MAS-MN … houses a full-time elementary school?" On the adjacent page was an ad for Tarek ibn Ziyad. The Minnesota Department of Education confirmed the academy pocketed more than $65,000 in state money for the 2006-2007 year under one program alone.

WND has reported earlier when in Idaho, the Five Pillars of Islam were taught under the guise of history, after the "religion guidelines' used in public schools were assembled with help from a terror suspect, and when U.S. courts upheld mandatory Islamic training in schools. Kersten said the school's principal is Asad Zaman, and the school's co-founder is Hesham Hussein, both imams and leaders of the MAS-Minnesota. After the academy was launched in 2003, they "played dual roles: Zaman as TIZA's principal and the current vice-president of MAS-MN, and Hussein as TIZA's school board chair and president of MAS-MN until his death in a car accident in Saudi Arabia in January," she reported.

Reporters who earlier visited the school had a number of reports: "A visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school," reported Minnesota Monthly in 2007. "Head scarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them." The report also included school officials' denials that there were any inappropriate religious activities at the school.

Kersten reported the academy was, in fact, originally proposed as a private Islamic school. It was converted when Islamic Relief, a California organization, agreed to sponsor a publicly funded charter school. She wrote she visited a booth for the academy at the MAS-Minnesota 2007 convention, and was told students go directly from class to "Islamic studies" at 3:30 p.m. "There, they learn 'Quranic recitation, the Sunnah of the Prophet' and other religious subjects, he said," according to Kersten.

She noted that beyond the issue of religious influences in a publicly funded school, Islamic Relief Worldwide, the parent of Islamic Relief-USA, has been accused by Israel of supporting Hamas, which is designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group. "TIZA has improved the reading and math performance of its mostly low-income students. That's commendable, but should Minnesota taxpayers be funding an Islamic public school," Kersten wrote. "Am I the only one that read this article and found it appalling that my tax dollars are being used by a school that is thinly veiling its attempt to be a public institution?" asked "ali0056" on the newspaper's forum. "I find it alarming that this place of public education is appearing to be so secretive about its intentions …"

"aklemz," however, accused Kersten of failing to do adequate reporting, noting that Keith Ellison, a Muslim elected from Minnesota to Congress, describes Zaman as a "bridge-builder." The school's own website explains that it tries to provide students a "learning environment that recognizes and appreciates the traditions, histories, civilizations and accomplishments of Africa, Asia and the Middle East." It boasts of a "rigorous Arabic language program" as well as "an environment that fosters your cultural values and heritage."

"Arabic is the language of culture that holds together the peoples of the middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and East Africa. By immersing our students in this world language, we equip them with a vital tool to communicate with the peoples in a strategic part of the world. … By the time students finish the program, they will be able to understand, read, write, and converse in Arabic."

The school says it is named after Tarek ibn Ziyad, the "Ummayad administrator of medieval Spain. Thirteen hundred years ago, serving in the multifaceted roles of activist, leader, explorer, teacher, administrator and peacemaker, he inspired his fellow citizens to the same striving for human greatness that we hope to instill in our students today." Even Islamic websites, however, explain that he invaded Spain from Africa in a bloody battle after ordering the boats that had carried his soldiers burned so they could not retreat. "This marked the beginning of the Muslim conquest of Spain. Muslims ruled the country for hundreds of years so gloriously and well that Spain became afterwards the fountain-head of culture and civilization for the whole continent of Europe," the Islamists boast.

Spencer, however, raised a question: "Does the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy represent the same idea for those who founded it and now operate it – the burning of boats, representing the determination of Muslim immigrants to stay in the U.S., followed by conquest? …. It is not an illegitimate question."


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