Advocacy group is asking for a federal review after the vote, rhetoric in St. Anthony.
Abdinasir Abdi of St. Paul, center, joined other Muslims for evening prayers Wednesday at the Masjid Omar mosque in Minneapolis. Abdi said he would go to the Islamic center planned in St. Anthony if the city had approved it Tuesday.
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.
"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.
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.
If the center pursues legal action, the ACLU of Minnesota could participate in the case, said Teresa Nelson, legal counsel for the group.
"We're all very disappointed," Burale said through an interpreter Wednesday. "It's possible we may appeal and win."
Burale and other supporters of the center say they worked for months with city officials, who indicated the proposed use for the space was acceptable. But in March, just before the center went before the Planning Commission, the city issued a moratorium, delaying the project because city leaders said they needed more time to study the zoning code.
Muslim leaders believed the city put the proposal on hold for months because of objections by residents. They were encouraged when the Planning Commission approved the center last week but surprised by the council's action.
Gray: Zoning was the key
Council Member Hal Gray, who voted against the center, said other houses of worship have asked to locate in similar light industrial zones. He believes the city should keep those areas open for businesses, not religious groups. When the Islamic center was proposed, he and other city leaders thought it necessary to reevaluate the zoning code, he said.
"The industrial zone is set up for business, manufacturing, things like that," he said. "We have a very small area in St. Anthony set aside for industrial. So the more we take out of that, the less there is for economic development, jobs, et cetera."
As to the anti-Muslim comments made at the meeting, Gray said they were "unfortunate." He said he doesn't think they reflect "the feeling of the majority of St. Anthony residents. It certainly doesn't reflect the feelings of anybody on the council."
Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit group that follows trends in the establishment of houses of worship, said an increasing number of religious entities nationwide are moving into nontraditional spaces such as former supermarkets, office parks, strip malls and light industrial areas. He said the Muslim center's request of St. Anthony is not uncommon among churches, mosques and synagogues.
"There's a lot of flux, a lot of change, which reflects economic change. When businesses close, they become available" and congregations seek them out, Jaeger said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has launched investigations into 28 cases nationwide of local denials of new mosques, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In the case of St. Anthony, CAIR is asking federal authorities to determine whether the denial constitutes a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which "protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land-use regulations."
Resistance after NYC issue
Saroya said plans for new mosques and Islamic centers began to get significant pushback from local governments following the controversy over the proposed mosque near ground zero in New York City several years ago. Since then, some 35 proposed mosques and Islamic centers have encountered community resistance, according to Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.
In Minnesota, new mosques and Islamic centers met with neighborhood opposition in Plymouth, Bloomington and Willmar, but governments eventually signed off on all of them, Saroya said. The Plymouth mosque is in a former post office.
The last time a Muslim house of worship encountered similar resistance was in Blaine seven years ago, when a group tried to buy land to build a mosque but was outbid by the city, Saroya said.
"I think the overwhelming experience [for Muslims] has been positive in Minnesota," said Saroya, who estimates there are 150,000 Muslims and close to 40 mosques in the state. "There's just a different culture here where people are more welcoming. The majority do have positive experiences, but there are groups of people in our community who are very vocal about their lack of understanding of Islam."
Rose French • 612-673-4352