Earlier this year, we reported on the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) against the City of St. Anthony Village, Minnesota (“City”) over the City’s denial of Abu Haraira Islamic Center’s (“Center”) conditional use permit to develop a 15,000 square foot religious and cultural center in the basement of a property located in the light industrial zone (prior post here). Less than four months after the DOJ sued the City under RLUIPA, the parties have settled. The City will allow the Center, whose members are mostly Somali immigrants, to develop its religious and cultural center while paying $200,000 in attorneys’ fees, $50,000 of which will come from the City as a co-pay and deductible, with the League of Minnesota Cities paying the remaining $150,000 from its trust fund. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, “[t]he agreement also indicates that elected leaders, managers, and certain City employees will participate in educational training about requirements of RLUIPA. The City of St. Anthony Village will also make RLUIPA information available to the public through its website and will report periodically to the Justice Department.” The City Council will vote on the proposed settlement at its December 23, 2014 meeting.
According to the Complaint in United States of America v. City of St. Anthony Village, Minnesota (D. Minn. 2014), the City’s denial of the conditional use permit substantially burdened the Center’s religious exercise because the Center was left with limited worship site options. In addition, the DOJ claimed that other sites in South Minneapolis could not adequately accommodate the Center’s religious exercise because these locations were too small and would require the members to pray in hallways or entryways. The DOJ also alleged that the City’s zoning code violated RLUIPA’s equal terms provision by treating religious uses worse than secular assembly and institutional uses.
The City’s mayor, Jerry Faust, praised the settlement as a “compromise” and stated, “We welcome the Islamic Center to the City of St. Anthony.” Faust added, “Sometimes, you just need to take a look at it and say, what is best for the community, how do we move forward, how do we commence the healing, and how do we make it better for all parties involved to the best of our ability?” At a conference to announce the settlement, Center Imam Sheikh Ahmed Burale thanked Faust and said, “[W]e want to forgive one another. No hard feelings.” Mayor Faust responded with the same and added, “You will be accepted by this community.”
Daniel P. Dalton, a lawyer who frequently represents religious organizations in RLUIPA actions, called the deal a “reasonable compromise,” but a victory for the Justice Department, and stated the $200,000 payment and training program was “a little heavy-handed.” Municipal officials who want to learn more about RLUIPA, may wish to visit RLUIPA Defense’s Resources Page.