An Islamic worship center once rejected in St. Anthony will open after all under a settlement reached between the city and the U.S. attorney's office.
"The city's decision will be reversed and soon members of Abu Huraira will be able to hold prayer services in this building," said U.S. Attorney Andy Luger Tuesday, standing outside the office building that has been the focus of a two-year battle.
Luger said he was "proud" of the agreement, which settles a lawsuit his office filed against St. Anthony in August. Eight local imams, four from the new center, stood behind him along with other Somali worshipers.
"God bless you and God bless America," said Sheikh Abdirahman Omar, vice president of the center. He thanked the Justice Department and "all the neighbors who have reached out to us and offered your support and encouragement."
St. Anthony Mayor Jerry Faust also praised what he called a "compromise" and predicted that the City Council will approve the settlement. That would undo its 4-1 vote in 2012 to reject the request by Islamic leaders to place the worship center in the building. "We welcome the Islamic Center to the city of St. Anthony," he said.
The council will vote on the deal at its Dec. 23 meeting and if approved, it is subject to a public meeting to take place no later than Feb. 10, 2015.
The settlement was hammered out in a 12-hour meeting last Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes.
It specifies that the office building, which is owned by the Islamic group, will house the worship center in about 12,940 square feet in the basement. The group will also have use of the atrium on the first floor. The building, located at 3055 Old Hwy. 8, is the former Medtronic headquarters.
Under the agreement a Planned Use Development is created, and the remainder of the building, about 90 percent of the floor space, which is zoned for light industrial use, will be rented out to businesses, as the Islamic Center had originally planned. The agreement will not allow the Islamic Center to expand the worship center into the other parts of the facility.
The deal will not change the character of light industrial land use zoning for that portion of the city, so it will not open the door to other religious groups opening worship centers there, city officials said.
"It is still our position that a light industrial zone is not an area for religious assembly," said Jay Lindgren, the city attorney. "We don't admit to any liability."
The proposed center, which is expected to draw 1,500 Somalis had drawn intense opposition from some people in St. Anthony. The case is one of about 28 nationally in which federal officials are investigating local refusals to allow mosques and Islamic centers, said the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Omar made reference to concerns that some Somalis have been under investigation for supporting terrorist organizations in Somalia and Syria. "In our community we are afraid of radicalization and recruitment," Omar said. "Having community space like this and work opportunities for our young people helps us build resilient communities and be safe."
Luger whose office has been investigating Somalis who have attempted to join foreign terrorist organizations, echoed Omar's remarks after the news conference.
"There are 100,000 Somalis living in Minnesota," he said. "The overwhelming majority are here because they want to live a peaceful life in a country that has welcomed them in. The small number of radicalized youth who are seeking to commit crimes should not be confused with the vast majority of law abiding Somali Minnesotans."
The agreement also settles a separate lawsuit filed by the Islamic Center, and St. Anthony agreed to pay the center's law firm, Kutak Rock, $200,000 for attorney fees.
St. Anthony also agreed to train city staff in the land use requirements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the law under which federal prosecutors sued the city.
Daniel Dalton, a Detroit attorney who wrote a book about the law and has represented other religious groups, called the deal a "reasonable compromise" as well as a victory for the Justice Department. However, he called the training program and $200,000 payout "a little heavy-handed."
City Attorney Lindgren disputed that, noting the training will be done on one day in March, using materials prepared by the League of Minnesota Cities, and said that the city will pay only about $50,000 as a co-pay and deductible, with the remaining $150,000 coming from the league's trust fund, the insurance entity that covers St. Anthony.
He said while the city had a "strong case," it would have cost far more if the litigation had continued.
Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that the Justice Department "will remain vigilant to ensure that the freedom to worship is a reality for all." She said that since the law on religious land use was passed in 2000, the Justice Department had filed 13 lawsuits, six since 2009, five of which were on behalf of mosques. She called the work "a core part of our civil rights work."
CAIR-MN Tuesday welcomed a federal agreement.
"This settlement sends a clear message that there are consequences to denying people their constitutionally protected rights," said Executive Director Lori Saroya. "Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues faced this same bigotry less than 100 years ago in our country. This vicious cycle ends here. No other community should go through this."
Assistant U.S. attorneys from Minnesota, Bahram Samie, Ana Voss and Gregory Brooker, represented the government along with attorneys of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), also applauded the settlement.
"The freedom to worship in the United States is a right that must be defended for all Americans," he said in a statement. "The Muslim community is an integral part of the diverse and democratic society in Minnesota and we stand in solidarity with them."