Bloomington and other metro-area cities have found that restricting religious groups is dicey.
To hear some residents of east Bloomington tell it, life hasn't been the same since the Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center opened seven months ago.
They complain that hundreds of people come and go at all hours from the old high school building at Park Avenue and 82nd Street and that residential streets are clogged with parked cars. They say there is too much noise and too much traffic, and they want the city to step in.
But Bloomington officials say their hands are tied, mostly because of a 2000 federal law that protects religious groups from land use laws that restrict their practices without a compelling reason.
A number of Minnesota cities have become well-acquainted with that law recently. It has been cited by churches that have sued the cities of Wayzata and Medina. When St. Anthony rejected an application for an Islamic center this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota warned the city that its moratorium on certain permit applications violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
"It really is a very provocative piece of legislation, because of how it impacts local government," said Lora Lucero, a land use attorney in New Mexico who co-authored a book on the law. "It's very one-sided in that respect."
Tensions in Bloomington boiled over last month during Ramadan, when crowds of people broke their daily fasts at Al-Farooq after sundown, and during Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends Ramadan. Parking was the main issue, but in a recent discussion with the city attorney, some City Council members were frustrated by their lack of control over the center.
Attorney Sandra Johnson told members that the city clearly has control over health and safety issues but can't do things like regulate peak parking periods, which would interfere with religious practice at the center.
"The City Council must exercise extreme caution while exercising conditions if it would affect religious exercises," Johnson said.
After listening to what the city couldn't do, Mayor Gene Winstead said, "It sounds like RLUIPA has gone completely nuts -- totally in one direction."
Lucero, the legal expert, said part of the law has a definite slant. If a religious applicant is denied a permit by local government, then challenges it and wins, their attorneys fees are paid.
Combined with damages, the financial cost of losing a case adds up fast. Settlements paid by local governments in other states have reached millions of dollars, Lucero said.
"You have to wonder how many local governments are capitulating or not even putting up a defense because they don't want to have the expense," she said.
Wayzata told to pay $500,000
In 2008, the city of Wayzata denied an application by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka to tear down a house and build a church and parking lot. A federal court-mediated settlement overturned that decision and required the city and its insurer to pay $500,000. The church has since asked for the case to be reopened.
Samuel Diehl, an attorney with Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis, represents the church. "RLUIPA flows out of the Constitution's protection of religious worship," Diehl said. "It's just a useful tool to help churches and cities understand the proper boundaries on local government's ability to regulate religious practice."
The law seems crazy to Bloomington resident Sally Ness. She is one of two persistent critics of Al-Farooq and has attended almost every City Council meeting in the past few months to object to the center. In her view, the group "lied" in its permit application, misleading the city about the scope of its activities and how many people would use the building.
"It's totally out of control," she said. "They said there would be prayer for one hour on a Friday; they did not say it would be going through the night. ... We never had a say in it. What about the neighborhood?"
But Jim Scheib, another resident who lives across the street from the center, told the council that Al-Farooq is a better neighbor than the old high school was.
Hyder Aziz, acting executive director of Al-Farooq, said that on a normal Friday, about 250 people attend a late-morning prayer service and about 150 go to an early-afternoon service. At first, the center had a single Friday service, but to ease parking problems it now has two services half an hour apart.
Recently, the center hired Bloomington police to help direct traffic from its parking lot on Fridays. Aziz said attendees have been asked to park in the center's lot, not the street.
Aziz said that when Al-Farooq made its application to the city, he was not certain how many people would use the center. "Even we had no idea of how many people would come," he said. "Most of our users are coming from Bloomington, Richfield and Burnsville. ... Other than at Ramadan, or Eid, there is no problem."
At night, lectures follow prayers, and sometimes 20 to 30 people are in the building until 11 p.m. or so, he said.
"How do you tell people you are not allowed to pray and reflect about your religious duties?" he asked. For neighbors who object, he said, "their solution is to stop praying and shut down the center."
City, center seek solutions
This summer, police stepped in after some residents let their dogs, which traditional Islam considers impure, run near the building and leave their waste behind. The center stepped in after an Al-Farooq custodian tried to stop people from walking on sidewalks or to the park next door, claiming the property was private. Aziz said the custodian was let go after he refused to change his behavior.
"Everything the city has required, we have done," Aziz said. "I am sure we are not perfect. If we make mistakes, we are going to correct them."
City officials said they will work with the center on parking issues. But overall, attorney Johnson told the council, the center is not so different from churches that hold perpetual vigils through the night, that have full-throated singing that reverberates down a street or that have parking lots that overflow on Easter. Like the center, most are located in residential areas.
"Almost every religion will have peak periods," Johnson said. "Churches don't sell tickets, and they don't take head counts."
She warned the council: "To reverse a prior proposal, particularly in light of public protest, is one of the most litigiously risky actions a city can do. ... There is not a legal basis for revocation or sanctions against them."
A mediator needed?
The city may try to find a mediator to work with center officials and neighbors. Aziz said he is willing to consider it, but that dealing with the two primary critics is "like talking to a wall."
Ness said, "I can't imagine a mediator will make them adhere to what they proposed."
Last week, as people came and went from Friday services, a group of neighbors watched from their lawn chairs, armed with a camera.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan