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Fatima Osman reacted as St. Anthony city council members voted to support the denial of a proposed Islamic center in St Anthony Village, Min., Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

Kyndell Harkness, Dml - Star Tribune

ZONING OR BIAS?


"It's not about religion. Houses of worship are not allowed in light-industrial areas. We're trying to preserve that area for jobs and businesses. We allow religious organizations in other areas."


-Mayor JERRY FAUST


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"Religious intolerance and racial intolerance go hand in hand. We're seeing that in a lot of our civil rights cases."


-LORI SAROYA, executive director, Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

Editorial: Is anti-Muslim bias St. Anthony's issue?

  • June 19, 2012 - 8:53 PM

Eight months ago, the St. Anthony City Council denied a Christian congregation's proposal to move to a building in an area zoned for light-industrial use. Last week, the council struck down an attempt to locate an Islamic center in a similarly zoned area. City leaders say their actions were consistent, based on land-use issues and not religious discrimination.

But supporters of the center wonder whether discrimination was a factor in the council's rejection, and they point to the hateful comments directed at the Muslims by a few residents at a recent council meeting.

In addition, both religious groups are made up primarily of dark-skinned, native Africans. Census data show that only about 400 of St. Anthony's 8,000 residents are black, and none sits on the City Council. Would a white Lutheran congregation's petition have been approved?

The answers aren't clear-cut, which was why it was prudent for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. The department has tapped the Minnesota District of the U.S. Attorney's Office to review the matter, spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney said.

"In all cases of this nature, from potential housing discrimination to potential employment discrimination, our primary effort is to resolve the matter to everyone's satisfaction," she said.

The vile anti-Muslim comments during last week's council meeting cast an unfavorable light on the city. The U.S. Attorney's review should determine whether that kind of thinking was a factor in the council's vote.

St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust called the hateful comments "terribly unfortunate" and not representative of the city. He also noted that less than 5 percent of the land in St. Anthony is zoned for light-industrial uses, and that council members want it preserved.

The Muslim and Christian petitioners tell a similar story. They say they proceeded with their proposals only after being encouraged to do so by city leaders. In each case, the city's process for reviewing the proposals was extended. And in each case, the Planning Commission recommended that the council support the proposals, only to be voted down 4-1.

"They were very encouraging at first," Pastor Nnaemeka Uchegbu told an Editorial Board member regarding the petition by Mountain of Fire Miracles Ministry, a congregation he no longer serves. His congregation split up over his plan to buy the property along St. Anthony Lane for $500,000. He'd hoped to close the deal in November, but the council struck down the project in October.

Muslims had hoped to turn the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters off Hwy. 8 into the Abu Huraira Islamic Center.

Nationally, the U.S. government is already investigating 28 cases of local communities rebuffing new mosques.

Sadly, people often fear what they don't understand. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida, too many people have wrongly made law-abiding Muslim-Americans pay a price for crimes they had nothing to do with and also abhorred.

The federal government also stirred the pot of suspicion, allowing surveillance of U.S. mosques, wrongly creating the impression that Islamic centers were breeding grounds of homegrown terrorism instead of houses of faith. While some mosque leaders have been arrested, those cases are isolated. Studies show that in the United States, Muslims are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than to commit them.

Our state's demographics are changing dramatically, and we're becoming more diverse. The proportion of children under age 5 who are minority increased to 30 percent in 2011, up 11 percentage points from a decade ago.

The United States was founded by people who wanted the freedom to practice their faith. That is the dream of diverse communities seeking to establish local houses of worship. We should embrace them, not fear them.

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