The federal government on Wednesday sued the small north-metro city of St. Anthony, contending that its City Council violated federal law in 2012 by rejecting a proposed Islamic center.

The lawsuit sprang from a controversy that echoes those that have flared in many U.S. cities when Muslims have sought to establish worship centers.

"An injustice has been done," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said at a news conference in Minneapolis. "I will not stand by while any religious group is subject to unconstitutional treatment that violates federal civil rights laws."

The lawsuit alleges that the council's decision to deny the Abu Huraira Islamic Center the right to establish a worship center in the basement of the St. Anthony Business Center violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000.

It marks the first time federal prosecutors have sued a Minnesota city citing the law, although the Justice Department has filed similar suits elsewhere in the country on behalf of Islamic centers, according to a U.S. attorney's office spokesman.

Federal authorities are seeking an injunction ordering St. Anthony to permit the group to use the business center. However, Luger said, there could be a more harmonious outcome.

"Though we have filed our lawsuit, we hope the good people of St. Anthony, including the elected officials who made this decision, will change their minds and allow Abu Huraira to conduct prayer services in this space," he said.

Although the St. Anthony project drew some of the most heated opposition, mosques and Islamic school projects elsewhere in the state have faced opposition. Projects in Plymouth, Willmar, Bloomington and Blaine met with objections, but ultimately all were approved.

In June 2012, the St. Anthony council rejected Abu Huraira's proposal, concluding that a religious and cultural center was incompatible with the light-industrial zoning. The council's 4-1 vote went against a city planning commission recommendation that it approve the 15,000-square-foot center in the former Medtronic headquarters at 3055 Old Hwy. 8.

The vote came after some residents of the city of 8,200 spoke out against the center. More than 150 people packed one meeting about it, and some made disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith.

Jim Roth, the lone council member to back the center, predicted then that the council's rejection would spawn a lawsuit. Roth said he was "embarrassed" and "stunned" by some of the remarks made.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony officials continued to defend the council's action, saying that the rejection was based purely on zoning issues. It "was not based on discrimination at all," said City Attorney Jay Lindgren.

"Religious uses of any type are allowed in the vast majority of the city," he said. "They are just not allowed in the roughly 5 percent of the city reserved for industrial uses. … An industrial zone is designed to create jobs and be an economic engine."

But Luger said the Islamic group would use only the basement for gatherings and would continue to rent out the remainder of the building to the current business tenants, using the income to maintain the worship center.

Unequal treatment alleged

The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis has spent two years investigating the matter, with its spokeswoman saying at one point that it had sought to reach an out-of-court agreement with the parties. Luger declined to describe discussions with St. Anthony.

Mayor Jerry Faust said that more than a year ago, the city turned over documentation on the matter to federal authorities. On Aug. 18 of this year, the City Council met with its attorney behind closed doors to discuss the threat of litigation.

At the heart of the federal suit is the allegation that the council treated an application for a conditional-use permit to assemble at the business center on less-than-equal terms from nonreligious conditional-use permits for assembly.

For instance, the suit contends that while prohibiting the Islamic center in the light-industrial zone, the city allowed a conditional-use permit for a union hall in the same zone in the late 1990s. "In fact, the city of St. Anthony held its own city awards ceremony — clearly an assembly or meeting — in the union hall in the early 2000s," Luger said.

And in 2008, the City Council approved a conditional-use permit for assembly for a church, the Twin Cities Christian Association, to operate in a business center in the commercial zone, he said.

The federal statute that forms the basis for the suit "was designed by its drafters to protect against what happened here," Luger said.

But Lindgren said that the city denied another Christian organization's request in the past few years that was similar to that of the Islamic center.

'We are citizens'

After the council's 2012 vote, the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked federal authorities to investigate whether the city had violated the federal law on religious land use.

And even after the council's vote, the Muslim group proposing the Islamic center bought the former Medtronic Inc. headquarters for $1.9 million.

Ellen Longfellow, the group's civil rights attorney, said, "We applaud this decision in support of religious freedom and hope for a speedy resolution to the case so that the local Muslim community may have access to the facilities required to meet its needs."

Attending Luger's news conference was Abdirahman Omar, president of the Islamic center, who praised federal authorities for filing the suit.

"We thank the Justice Department for doing this," he said. "We think [the council's denial is] unfair. … We are citizens of the United States."

Luger noted that the Abu Huraira Islamic Center was formed by a number of Minnesota Somali-American community leaders who conducted an "exhaustive search to accommodate" the state's growing Somali population. "Many members were unable to practice their religion with others from the community because there was not an appropriate location for communal worship," he said.

From 2009 to 2011, he said, the organization offered to buy at least two other locations but was turned down. In 2011, they found the "ideal space" at the St. Anthony Business Center.

Luger said he has toured the building and basement area. "It is a large, empty space that is perfect for this community's Friday evening prayers," he said, and has a large parking lot to accommodate worshipers.

A desire to be welcoming

Soon after the council denied the permit in St. Anthony, three churches in the city held an interfaith meeting to counter some of the negative comments made at the council meeting.

"Some things had been said … that sounded unwelcoming and unfriendly. There was a desire to show a different face on things," said the Rev. Paul La Fontaine of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, which co-sponsored the event. "It was an opportunity to get together and see some other people. Everyone is interested in having a good job and raising a family." • 612-673-4804 • 612-673-7382