The U.S. government is suing the city of St. Anthony, Minnesota for rejecting a proposal for a Muslim worship space two years ago, arguing that the city’s decision is a violation of religious freedom.
In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) took a stand against a 2012 decision by the St. Anthony City Council to deny a conditional use permit to the Abu Huraira Islamic Center, which had requested authorization to use the basement of the St. Anthony Business Center for religious prayer and gatherings. Government lawyers allege that the city’s actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law passed unanimously by Congress in 2000 that seeks to protect “individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.” The DOJ is seeking an injunction to undo the city’s decision.
“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished rights, and there are few aspects of that right more central than the ability of communities to establish places for collective worship,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Moran said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger added: “We aggressively sought to resolve this matter without a lawsuit. However, it is a solemn duty of all United States Attorneys to uphold the Constitution. The people of Abu Huraira have a right to peaceably assemble — they have a right to practice their religion, and it’s our job to enforce that right.”
The City Council voted 4–1 against the Islamic Center’s proposal two years ago, with council members insisting that the worship space was incompatible with the area’s light-industrial zoning, which they said was an attempt to bring in jobs and discouraged the use of buildings for religious services. But in minutes from the 2012 meeting about the issue, Jim Roth, the one council member who sided with the Islamic Center, disagreed with the city’s financial argument. He argued that granting the Muslim group a permit would not substantially raise local taxes, but denying it would open the city up to a possible lawsuit, which would ultimately cost taxpayers more. He also noted that he was “embarrassed and stunned” by some of the seemingly anti-Muslim comments made by locals during the meeting, such as requesting information about where congregants are “coming from” and claiming that their worship space would be “detrimental to the … values in the area.”
The City of St. Anthony, which is a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, released a statement defending its decision.
“There has been no discrimination,” the statement read. “As a matter of fact, the city has actually expanded the area in which religious uses, including the Islamic Center, could be located. The city doesn’t allow any religious uses in its industrial area. The city has a very limited industrial area which is appropriately limited to uses that create jobs.”
Nevertheless, the government’s lawyers contend that the city handled the Muslim group’s request on “less than equal terms” compared to when it issued non-religious, conditional use permits for assembly, explaining that denying the center the necessary permit “unlawfully disfavored a religious use.” A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office also told the Star Tribune that the DOJ tried to broach an out-of-court settlement with the parties during its two-year investigation of the case, but came up short.
The dispute is but one among dozens of “mosque controversies” that have flared up across the country over the past few years, with proposed mosques and Islamic cultural centers prompting lawsuits and triggering anti-Muslim protests. Some city councils have approved such projects and many mosques have been built without sparking debate, but a few Muslim groups, such as supporters of the famous Park51 Islamic Cultural Center in New York City, have had to fight lengthy legal battles just to carve out a space for religious gatherings. The DOJ has come to the aid of many of these communities, filing a brief in support of a Muslim group in Georgia and helping settle a lawsuit between Islamic Center of the South Bay and the city of Lomita, California.
The government’s lawsuit also has special relevance in the area: St. Anthony resides within Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which is represented by Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim-American ever elected to Congress and the only Muslim-American in the U.S. House of Representatives.