The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued the City of St. Anthony Village under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) after the City Council, in 2012, denied the Abu Huraira Islamic Center’s application for a conditional use permit to develop and operate a 15,000 square foot religious and cultural center in the former Medtronic, Inc. headquarters. The City Council claims it denied the application because the proposed use was incompatible with the site’s light industrial zone, the purpose of which is to create jobs. The Council’s decision went against the City Planning Commission’s recommendation to approve the application.
Allegedly, during the Council’s public hearing on the application, members of the public displayed overt religious animus, taking aim at Islam. According to one report, one resident stated, “There is no other religion in the world that condones violence. Islam is evil.” Another resident said, “Where did you come from? Change your own country.” Abu Huraira’s members are mostly Somali immigrants.
The DOJ launched a formal investigation in 2012. Reportedly, the DOJ tried to settle the matter with the City outside of litigation, but the City refused and last week the DOJ sued. According to its press release, the DOJ alleges that the City violated RLUIPA’s equal-terms provision because it treats religious assembly uses in the light industrial zone less favorably than secular assembly uses allowed in the zone (assemblies, meeting lodges, and convention halls), and because the City allegedly treated Abu Huraira’s application less favorably than conditional use permit applications for secular assembly uses. The DOJ also claims that the permit denial substantially burdens Abu Huraira’s religious exercise, because “members in the northern Twin Cities are burdened from praying together based on the length of time it takes to travel to the worship centers in south Minneapolis. Moreover, prayer space at locations in south Minneapolis are too small to accommodate members, many of whom often have to pray in hallways or entryways, and hold multiple prayer sessions in shifts to accommodate crowds.”
U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger stated of the lawsuit:
Freedom of religion and the right to peaceably assemble are enshrined for all Americans in the Bill of Rights. 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. 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 appears ready to vigorously defend the denial. It issued a statement in response to the lawsuit, saying there was no discrimination:
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. That decision is consistent with past action of the council and with sound land use policy. That decision is not a violation of RLUIPA.
The City of Saint 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.
There has been no discrimination. As a matter of fact, the city has actually expanded the area in which religious uses, including an 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.
St. Anthony is located in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, represented by Keith Ellison, the first Muslim-American ever elected to Congress.
The DOJ's Complaint in United States of America v. City of St. Anthony Village, Minnesota (D. Minn. 2014) is available here.