U.S. government sues St. Anthony over rejection of Islamic center

Published 10:07 am Thursday, August 28, 2014

ST. ANTHONY — The U.S. government is suing the city of St. Anthony for alleged religious discrimination for rejecting a proposed Islamic center in 2012, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said Wednesday.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, alleges that the St. Anthony Village City Council treated the group’s application for a conditional use permit at the St. Anthony Business Center on less-than-equal terms as other, non-religious permits to assemble.

“Freedom of religion and the right to assembly peaceably are enshrined for all Americans in the Bill of Rights,” Luger said in a news release. “The people of Abu Huraira have a right to assembly peaceably — they have a right to practice their religion, and it’s our job to enforce that right.”

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The lawsuit contends the Minneapolis suburb violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, and that denying the permit made it difficult for the group’s members to practice their faith. The suit seeks a court order requiring St. Anthony to allow the Abu Huraira Islamic Center to maintain a worship space in the basement of the St. Anthony Business Center.

In a statement Wednesday, the city said there was no discrimination.

“The City of St. Anthony Village welcomes all religious faiths into our community. The conditional use permit was denied based on the appropriate need to restrict assembly and religious uses within the very limited amount of industrial area within the city,” the statement said.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it welcomed the lawsuit.

“We applaud this decision in support of religious freedom and hope for a speedy resolution to the case so that the local Muslim community may have access to the facilities required to meet its needs,” CAIR-MN civil rights attorney Ellen Longfellow said in a statement.

The lawsuit follows a recent notice of intent to sue sent by the U.S. Department of Justice alleging religious discrimination.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis tried to reach an out-of-court agreement with the parties during a two-year investigation, a spokeswoman said.

St. Anthony’s City Council voted 4-1 in 2012 to reject the proposed Abu Huraira Islamic Center, saying a religious and cultural center wasn’t compatible with the site’s light-industrial zoning. The council’s decision went against the city planning commission’s recommendation to approve the 15,000-square-foot center in the former Medtronic Inc. headquarters.

More than 150 people attended the meeting. Some spoke out against the Islamic center.

Jim Roth, the only council member to vote in favor of the center, said he was “embarrassed” and “stunned” by some of the remarks that were made.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ chapter in Minnesota asked the federal government to investigate.

Two months later, the group that proposed the Islamic center purchased the old Medtronic building for $1.9 million.