Thursday, June 14, 2012

Suing Your Way into St. Anthony

St. Anthony is one of the best-kept secrets in the Twin Cities. It's a small community of less than 10,000 people that is nestled into an area north and east of Minneapolis. It has its own school district and the city contracts out its police force to provide service to a number of other small, neighboring communities. It's a friendly, tidy place without a lot of traffic or trouble. I live on the border of St. Anthony and New Brighton and spend time in St. Anthony nearly every day.

That may be changing, however, now that the St. Anthony City Council has rejected a proposed Islamic center, as the Star Tribune reports:


St. Anthony's rejection of a proposed Islamic center marks the first time in seven years that a new Muslim house of worship has been blocked by a local government in Minnesota.

City leaders said the decision was solely a land-use issue, but Muslim leaders expressed fears that Minnesota may be joining the ranks of other states where proposed mosques and Islamic centers have been blocked by government amid anti-Islamic rhetoric and intense community resistance.

These Muslim leaders are approaching the matter in a thoroughly All-American sort of way -- they are trying to sic the federal government on St. Anthony:


"This is the first one [in Minnesota] where we're seeing so much anti-Muslim hate involved," said Lori Saroya, president of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The Muslim advocacy group asked the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday to investigate allegations of anti-Muslim bias in the rejection of the proposed Abu-Huraira Islamic Center, planned for the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters.

So what exactly is the anti-Muslim hate in St. Anthony?


During a City Council meeting Tuesday night, several residents disparaged the Muslim faith and said the Islamic center was not welcome in the small bedroom community north of Minneapolis. At least one resident said Islam is "evil" and embraces violence.

Following the vote, the imam, Sheikh Ahmed Burale, said his congregation of nearly 200 is still interested in using the St. Anthony space and is considering a court challenge of the council's decision.

A few thoughts:

  • The location for this Islamic center is not likely to be problematic for anyone. I drive by the facility every day during my commute and I would doubt that most St. Anthony residents would have even realized it was there if it weren't for the recent publicity.
  • It's often typical that religious congregations set up, at least initially, in non-traditional venues. I've attended religious services in old movie theaters and strip mall store fronts. You go where you can find space, so setting up shop in the basement of a suburban office building isn't particularly unusual.
  • I don't know if the stated reasons for stopping the center are legitimate or not, but I do think the St. Anthony City Council does have the right to make that determination.
  • Having said that, municipal governments are often hostile to proposed projects for any number of reasons. Based on what I know of St. Anthony, I doubt that religious hostility was a factor.
  • Should you hold the St. Anthony government responsible for disparaging remarks made in a public forum? I don't think so. I also dislike the notion that Islam, or any religion, cannot be criticized. As a Catholic, I hear my faith criticized quite often. While I dislike such criticism and find it unfair, I'm not inclined to sue those who disparage my faith. I would hope that the imam and his congregation would think hard about getting the federal government involved. I think St. Anthony would, in the end, welcome the congregation, but suing your way in isn't likely to help that happen.

11 comments:

Night Writer said...

IIRC, doesn't St. Anthony have a large percentage of university professors and such types? (I was looking into the demographics a few years ago when considering moving my mom up here). Their prejudice is generally much more subtle, if not any less virulent. Still, this is kind of an odd situation and one or two loud voices - especially the senstational ones - can skew the perception of a meeting. It kind of makes me wonder if the reactionary comments were from a true "islamophobe", or from an agent provacateur looking to lay some groundwork for a suit (which would require the Islamic community expected their application to be denied - and the story suggests that up until the meeting this was not the case).

Brian said...

Has St. Anthony ever rejected a building permit for a church?

Mr. D said...

NW,

I know there’s a certain percentage of U of M professors in St. Anthony, but it’s not a big part of the population. As for the agent provocateur idea, that certainly is possible. The population in St. Anthony skews significantly older, since a lot of people who live there have been there for a very long time, although you are starting to see some churn.

Brian,

Not to my knowledge.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

The town just north of me denied a building permit to a Lutheran church a number of years back. So they built outside of city limits. It's their right and I don't have a problem with it. Nor do I have a problem with St. Anthony telling the mosque builders to look elsewhere. Unless of course one wants to make the argument that the city has no permitting rights period.

Brian said...

Well, it seems that it would clearly hinge on whether the standards for land use are being applied equitably or not. If it appears that they were not (and I'm not opining on that either way, not enough info) then legal action at the federal level would be be appropriate, because that would be a violation of federal law (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act mentioned in the article.)

As to the question of "Should you hold the St. Anthony government responsible for disparaging remarks made in a public forum?" ...well, yes, if there is good reason to believe that the city is making decisions in response to such remarks (or the sentiments behind them.)

But it isn't clear to me either way whether that is the case.

Mr. D said...

As to the question of "Should you hold the St. Anthony government responsible for disparaging remarks made in a public forum?" ...well, yes, if there is good reason to believe that the city is making decisions in response to such remarks (or the sentiments behind them.)

I disagree -- in this case, citizens who came to the public forum said some nasty things. It wasn't anyone on the St. Anthony city council.

I wrote about this case because the dispute raises some very interesting questions that we need to answer, especially concerning whether or not the federal government's power trumps local decisionmaking.

Gino said...

I wrote about this case because the dispute raises some very interesting questions that we need to answer, especially concerning whether or not the federal government's power trumps local decisionmaking.

Dredd Scott would like a word with you.

Brian said...

So would some medical marijuana patients.

Mr. D said...

Dredd Scott would like a word with you.

Right. Problem part one.

So would some medical marijuana patients.

Right. Problem part two.

Now throw in Kelo. Mix well.

charlieq said...

Night Writer may be thinking of St. Anthony Park.

I reviewed the city's zoning ordinances, since they were cited as the reason for the change, although the news stories didn't pinpoint specific zoning objections. It looks like the city did follow its code in making the decision.

The light industrial zone where the building is located does allow "meeting halls" under a permitted conditional use, meaning the city might approve a specific application. Churches are not mentioned under that section.

They are mentioned under residential zoning, but also as a conditional use.

There appear to be only two churches in the city and several cemeteries.

Mr. D said...

Charlie,

Thanks for stopping by and for the clarification. I'm pretty sure you're right about the churches -- St. Charles Borromeo is right on the border with Nordeast and Nativity Lutheran is on Silver Lake Road.