Justice Dept. sues St. Anthony over rejection of Islamic center

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Anthony for refusing to permit a proposed mosque in 2012.

Abu-Huraira Islamic Center proposed a mosque at the old Medtronic headquarters in St. Anthony at 3055 Old Highway 8. The City Council voted 4-1 in June 2012 not to issue a conditional use permit for the mosque, citing appropriate land use. Supporters of the mosque said religion was the issue.

Public testimony in 2012 included open opposition to allowing an Islamic congregation to meet in the city at all.

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The civil suit filed by Luger alleges that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which exempts religious buildings from many zoning regulations.

Luger said there is no evidence of personal bigotry by members of the St. Anthony Village city council. He said the lawsuit will be resolved if the council reverses its previous decision and grants the permit for the mosque.

St. Anthony officials said in 2012 that the city's zoning code didn't allow religious worship in buildings zoned for light industrial use. Luger, however, said the city in 2008 granted a permit for The Twin Cities Christian Association to operate in a business center in a commercial zone.

City Attorney Jay Lindgren said city officials are confident that there hasn't been any discrimination. Lindgren said the mosque's conditional use permit was denied only because it was located in an industrial zone.

"Religious uses are allowed in the vast majority of the city," Lindgren said. "And they're welcomed of any faith, just not within that small part of the city, which is reserved for job creation and to be the economic engine of the city."

Lindgren said the City Council also denied a permit for a Christian church that wanted to locate in the industrial zone in 2011.

According to the complaint, the leaders of Abu-Huraira had been searching for three years for a space large enough to accommodate its hundreds of mostly Somali members. They chose the St. Anthony Business Center on Old Highway 8 because it had room in its basement for services and a large enough parking lot to accommodate its growing membership.

The Islamic center purchased the property in Aug. 2012 for $1.86 million, according to Hennepin County property records.

The mosque's president, Abdirahman Omar, said he is grateful that U.S. Attorney filed the lawsuit and said it has been frustrating for the members not to have a central place to worship. Ellen Longfellow, a civil rights attorney for the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that her group urged the Department of Justice to investigate because they saw no legitimate reason for the permit to be denied.

"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." Longfellow said.

Other cities around the state and country have faced controversies over proposed mosques. A proposal for a new mosque last year in St. Cloud was withdrawn by organizers in the face of the City Council's opposition.