Updated: Dec. 10, 12:02 p.m. | Posted: Dec. 9, 4 a.m.
Officials in the tiny Swift County town of Murdock voted 3 to 1 Wednesday to allow a controversial religious group that worships ancient Norse gods to use a former church as a regional gathering place.
The Asatru Folk Assembly — or AFA — bought an abandoned Lutheran church in the Swift County town about 110 miles northwest of Minneapolis, hoping to use it as its third “hof,” or gathering place, in the United States.
But some local residents have opposed the move due to the AFA’s pro-white beliefs.
At Wednesday’s virtual meeting, the City Council had a brief discussion and didn’t take public comments before the vote. Murdock, Minn., Mayor Craig Kavanagh started by reading a statement on behalf of the city condemning racism in all forms.
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City attorney Don Wilcox told council members that the question before them was a zoning matter. He said the city can impose conditions on things like parking or traffic or noise but because AFA is a religious organization, their speech is protected, as long as it doesn't cause violence.
A group of opponents of the AFA, including members of a group called Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate, rallied along Highway 12 before the meeting.
Opponents say they'll be watching closely to see if the group violates any conditions of the one-year permit, and reporting them if they do.
The Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate called it “a devastating and difficult day for Murdock.”
“Residents no longer feel safe with the presence of the Asatru Folk Assembly in their community,” a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page reads. “Any anger, fear, or resentment about the new reality Murdock faces should be focused towards the future of Murdock. The AFA has made this our new reality, and we need to set our sights on how we make it safe and free for the people of Murdock and the surrounding communities.”
The Asatru Folk Assembly is part of a revived ethnic faith movement, sometimes called neo-paganism or neo-Volkisch, that is based on old beliefs. Asatru is an old Norse word that means faith or loyalty to the gods — in this case, the gods of pre-Christian Europe, such as Thor and Odin.
“Asatru is an ethnic faith of European peoples, believing that our gods are our most ancient ancestors, and basically worshipping them and building our community,” Matt Flavel, AFA’s current Alesherjargothi or high priest, told MPR in late October.
While the AFA claims to celebrate European heritage, some of its beliefs also promote white purity. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the AFA as a neo-Volkish hate group.
The Asatru religious movement is relatively young but growing, with the modern revival starting in Iceland in the 1970s. Not all Asatru groups share the same beliefs.
On its website, the AFA’s statement of ethics includes: “We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships. We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own.”
In the U.S., Stephen McNallen founded the Asatru Free Assembly, which was disbanded in 1986, then resurrected by McNallen in 1994 as the Asatru Folk Assembly.
At an Oct. 14 public hearing before the Murdock City Council, some city residents spoke against granting a permit to the AFA, voicing fears that the group would tarnish the reputation of their town of about 275 people. Some said they are concerned that the AFA harbors members who have extreme views or violent tendencies.
“There are young children of color across the street from the church,” Victoria Guillemard, a Murdock resident and law student, told MPR News in October. “So to have that hateful ideology, especially in a community that might not immediately view this group as extremely dangerous, move into a town … I knew that our local government would not necessarily step up and speak out against it.”
Flavel said the AFA’s beliefs have been misinterpreted. He said the group is peaceful and does not condone violence or hold white supremacist views. Anyone who espouses violent views is asked to leave, Flavel said.
“Unfortunately, we live in a time where there's a lot of name calling,” he said. “When you say certain things, they scare people. And that's really unfortunate.”
Flavel did acknowledge that the AFA is a group for people of European heritage, and would not allow someone to join who was another nationality or race.
The Asatru Folk Assembly already has hofs — essentially a church used for meeting and worship — in California and North Carolina. Flavel said they chose Murdock in part because of its location, in a region where there are members who live within a few hours.
“We happened to find this property for a very good price, and it looks like it would meet our needs really well,” he said.
AFA plans to use the hof for meetings and worship two or three times a month, Flavel said. He said he expects 20 to 30 people to attend, but hopes that number will grow.
“We have every intention of being good members of the community, of trying to do charitable outreach,” Flavel said.
But at the October public hearing, some residents said they worry AFA would bring negative publicity to their town.
“We don’t want to be known as the hate capital of Minnesota,” said resident Pete Kennedy.
On Thursday, Mayor Kavanagh issued a statement posted on the city’s Facebook page noting how divisive the issue has been in the community. He said the vote was about not about race or religious beliefs, but about a zoning permit. He said the City Council was “highly advised by multiple legal sources” to not deny the permit because it could be seen infringing on religious freedom.
Kavanagh also apologized for technical problems with the meeting, which was held in person with audience members on a Zoom call. The audio was difficult to hear, the council members’ camera was turned off and those who voted for and against the permit were not identified.
The city is not set up to conduct virtual meetings, the mayor said, but may have to look into improvements if the COVID-19 restrictions continue.
He also defended the City Council’s vote, saying it was a difficult one.
“If you think this decision was a cake walk and you jump to a conclusion that because we approved the CUP zoning, we are racists, you are dead wrong," Kavanagh said. “Let’s stand together and fight for what we believe in. That is our First Amendment right, take advantage of it. We currently live in a world where we can’t agree to disagree anymore. We need to fix that.”