The U.S. attorney’s office and the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit Wednesday against the city of St. Anthony, contending its City Council violated federal law by rejecting a proposed Islamic indoctrination center in 2012. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said his office found that the council’s decision to deny the Abu Huraira Islamic Center the right to worship in the St. Anthony Business Center violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress.
Star Tribune Federal authorities are asking for an injunction from a federal judge ordering St. Anthony to permit the group to use the basement of the business center.
In June 2012, the council voted down the proposed center, concluding that a religious and cultural center was incompatible with the site’s light-industrial zoning. The council’s 4-1 decision went against a city planning commission recommendation to approve the 15,000-square-foot center in the old Medtronic headquarters at 3055 Old Highway 8.
The council decision came after some St. Anthony residents voiced their opposition to the proposed center. More than 150 people packed the meeting, and some made disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith. Jim Roth, the lone council member to back the Islamic center, predicted at the time of the vote that the council’s rejection would spawn a lawsuit. Roth said he was “embarrassed” and “stunned” by some of the remarks made.
On Wednesday, St. Anthony officials continued to defend the council’s action, saying that the rejection of the Islamic center was based purely on zoning issues. “Religious uses of any type are allowed in the vast majority of the city. They are just not allowed in the roughly five percent of the city reserved for industrial uses,” said St. Anthony City Attorney Jay Lindgren.
Lindgren said the denial “was not based on discrimination at all,” but rather “on the conclusion that religious assembly of any type is not allowed in an industrial zone. “An industrial zone is designed to create jobs and be an economic engine,” he said.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis has spent two years investigating the matter, with its spokeswoman saying at one point that it had sought to reach an out-of-court agreement with the parties.
At the heart of the federal suit is the allegation that the City Council treated an application for a conditional-use permit to assemble at the business center on less-than-equal terms from other, nonreligious conditional-use permits for assembly. While prohibiting the Islamic center in the light industrial zone, it allowed for a union hall with banquet facilities to be rented by the public, the suit said. The city permitted the union hall because the light industrial zone allowed for “assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls.”
The Minnesota Chapter of terror-linked CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) had asked federal authorities to investigate whether the city violated the federal law on religious land use. In August 2012, two months after the council’s rejection, the Muslim group proposing the Islamic center purchased the former Medtronic Inc. headquarters for $1.9 million.
The suit contends that the Islamic center conducts an “assembly” and therefore barring it violates federal law. Lindgren said there was a similar denial of a Christian-based organization around that same time as well.
Mosques and Islamic school projects have faced opposition across the state. Some community members opposed projects in Plymouth, Willmar, Bloomington and Blaine, as well as out of state as in Murfreesboro, TN, where a 2-year hostile battle raged, but all were reluctantly approved, thanks to pressure from the Feds.
The U.S. attorney’s office said that the treatment of the center’s backers added substantial burdens to its members practicing their faith. “Abu Huraira members’ ability to exercise their religion is limited by their current worship site options, including, but not limited to the fact that members in the northern Twin Cities are burdened from praying together based on the lengthy of time it takes to travel to the worship centers in south Minneapolis,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement.
“Moreover,” the statement said, “prayer space at locations in Minneapolis are too small to accommodate members, many of whom often have to pray in hallways or entryways, and hold multiple pray sessions in shifts to accommodate crowds.”
After the council denied the permit in St. Anthony, three churches in St. Anthony held an interfaith meeting between Christian sympathizers and Muslim leaders in July 2012 to address some of the negative comments made at the council meeting.
“Some things had been said at the City Council meeting that sounded unwelcoming and unfriendly. There was a desire to show a different face on things,” said Rev. Paul La Fontaine, with St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church which co-sponsored the event. He said he was surprised by news of the federal lawsuit.
Asked about the community’s perception of the Muslim faith, he said: “In light of recent events overseas, there is a certain concern. St. Anthony is a “first-ring” suburb of Minneapolis that’s just 2.35 square miles with 8,200 people.