Three months after denying a group of Bosnian Muslims the right to establish a cemetery in their county, the Chisago County Board voted unanimously Wednesday to reverse itself and grant the group a permit to proceed.
The 4-0 vote, taken with scarcely a word of discussion, followed a solemn warning from the board's attorney that it was headed for a huge legal battle on multiple fronts that it was bound to lose.
"I have no doubt the county will face claims [for religious discrimination] by the applicant and by the federal government," Paul Reuvers said.
"I believe the county will lose that litigation, which will be time-consuming and expensive — and there is no insurance coverage for any [U.S.] Department of Justice inquiry. As depositions of yourself and your staff begin, costs will roll up exponentially."
It felt like the kind of blunt talk normally reserved for private sessions, but performed in public this time with one eye on public opinion and the county residents who have aggressively opposed the Muslim group's arrival in the north metro exurbs.
Countering local rumblings that the Justice Department under President Donald Trump might feel differently about a case launched in the waning days of a U.S. attorney appointed by President Barack Obama, Reuvers stressed that he saw no partisanship surrounding the issue.
"Congress passed the law unanimously, with total bipartisan support, and a law with real teeth," he said. "I also met with the Justice Department and it was explained that Washington was the final decisionmaker here and this was done with Washington's approval."
One commissioner asked whether it was possible to add a permit condition to screen the cemetery from passersby, but Reuvers was firm.
"I think the time for conditions has passed," he said. And although a smattering of citizens turned up for the special meeting, he was equally firm on not letting the session turn into a debate. "This is not," he said, "a public hearing."
A quick vote by the board followed and then a statement from County Administrator Bruce Messelt, who said that on behalf of the board he wanted to "welcome the Bosniak community to Chisago County."
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), attended but said afterword he would reserve comment until the group holds a news conference Thursday.
The Islamic Community of Bosniaks of Minnesota, a group of Minneapolis Muslims that is seeking affordable land in a suburban county to bury its dead, had threatened litigation. County officials said they expect the group to now drop any litigation, and hope federal officials will do likewise.
The Chisago board voted 3-2 in December to deny the group's request for a permit, even though the county's planning commission had recommended the project and the county's staff backed it.
Only four commissioners were on hand for Wednesday's vote, since one is hospitalized following a car crash.
David Peterson • 651-925-5039