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Justice Dept. files suit against St. Anthony over 2012 denial of Islamic center
St. Anthony city attorney says city has yet to officially respond to lawsuit
The Department of Justice filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against St. Anthony Village Aug. 27, arguing discrimination in its denial of a conditional use permit for an Islamic worship center within the city.
In June 2012, the St. Anthony City Council voted 4-1 to deny the CUP to the Abu Huraira Islamic Center, which would have allowed religious assemblies at the building it now owns at 3055 Old Highway 8.
Located in an area zoned for light industrial use, the building is a former Medtronic headquarters.
A statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office said the city is being sued for an alleged violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The statement said the aim of the lawsuit is to force the city to allow religious gatherings in the basement of the Abu Huraira Islamic Center.
"Freedom of religion and the right to assemble peaceably are enshrined for all Americans in the Bill of Rights," U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger said in the statement. "This office conducted a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the City Council's decision to deny Abu Huraira the right to worship in the St. Anthony Business Center.
"It is a solemn duty of all United States Attorneys to uphold the Constitution," Luger said in the statement. "The people of Abu Huraira have a right to assemble peaceably — they have a right to practice their religion, and it's our job to enforce that right."
Contacted for comment Aug. 27, St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust said the city had released a statement on its website and that he had nothing to add beyond what was posted.
"The City Council's decision to deny the conditional use permit for the Abu Huraira Islamic Center was made only after months of study and careful consideration of the impacts of allowing an assembly use in a zoning district specifically set aside for industrial uses," the city's online statement stated.
"That decision is consistent with past action of the council and with sound land use policy," it continued. "That decision is not a violation of RLUIPA."
Luger has cited the city's 2008 approval of a CUP for The Twin Cities Christian Association to operate in a building zoned for commercial use as proof of a double standard.
St. Anthony City Attorney Jay Lindgren said comparing the 2008 situation to the Islamic center is not relevant, because the Islamic center was proposed for an area zoned for industrial use, as opposed to commercial use.
"They're apples and oranges," Lindgren said in an interview last week.
The city attorney also mentioned a late 2011 denial of a CUP for a Christian church that was also to be located in an area zoned for industrial use as proof of the city's consistency.
In an Aug. 27 statement, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations argued that St. Anthony had indeed violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and it welcomed the lawsuit, something it had argued for since the special permit was initially denied.
"We were shocked when St. Anthony denied the conditional use permit for the Islamic center in 2012 and saw no legitimate reason for the denial," civil rights attorney Ellen Longfellow of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a written statement. "That is why we urged the Department of Justice to investigate."
The initial votes
On June 4, 2012, the St. Anthony Planning Commission voted 4-1 to recommend approval of the conditional use permit, with one of the five commissioners absent. The city council went against that recommendation eight days later.
The city council's June 12, 2012, meeting drew crowds, the Bulletin reported at the time, with residents from St. Anthony and surrounding cities voicing support for the proposed Islamic center, while other speakers made generalized anti-Islamic remarks to the council.
One opponent in the audience remarked, "There's no other religion in the world that condones violence. Islam is evil. I for one do not want to see a mosque in my city."
Another St. Anthony man asserted that the Islamic center would not be beneficial to the city.
"If we get sued by the ACLU, so be it. Let's not be bullied," he told the city council prior to the vote on the permit.
A man who said he was a practicing Muslim addressed the residents' concerns. Speaking in favor of the Islamic center, he told the group, "I am not scary. I grew up in Minnesota. The more we know about people, the more we tend to break barriers. The more you get to know a community, the more you tend to live at peace with that community."
The lone city council vote against denial of the conditional use permit in 2012 came from council member Jim Roth, who said, "By denying this CUP it will open St. Anthony up ... to lawsuits.
Looking out at the audience, he added, "I am pretty embarrassed by what some citizens said ... I am stunned. Fear is a scary thing. I think we saw some scary people here tonight."
Roth did not return The Bulletin's call for comment by press time.
According to a Council on American-Islamic Relations statement issued last week, in the past two years residents in four other Minnesota cities — Blaine, Plymouth, Willmar and Bloomington — opposed the opening of mosques in their cities, yet all eventually received city approval despite the opposition.
The next moves
Lindgren said, "The city will respond to the lawsuit in the required time frame," which, according to him, is about 30 days.
No court dates have been set.
Mike Munzenrider can be reached at email@example.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.