Unwilling to lead his city into a protracted legal battle with the U.S. attorney and members of the Muslim community, the mayor of St. Anthony will ask the City Council on Tuesday to approve a tentative settlement that would pave the way for the first mosque and Islamic center in the city.
The five-member St. Anthony City Council meets for the first time since Mayor Jerry Faust, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and members of the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center announced earlier this month that an agreement had been struck in the civil rights lawsuits against the city.
At least three members of the City Council must approve the settlement, which calls for about 10 percent of the former Medtronic headquarters building to be used for religious purposes. Most of the religious space will be in the basement of the 100,000-square-foot building, which the Islamic Center bought in 2012.
If the council approves the settlement, the Islamic Center's application will go back to the city's planning commission and then the City Council for final approval in February.
Luger's office filed a civil rights suit against the small northern suburb in August after the City Council rejected an application for a mosque in 2012. The federal prosecutor alleged violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. City leaders said then and still contend today that they rejected the mosque because it would be located in an office building, which is zoned light industrial and "designed to create jobs and be an economic engine," said the city attorney.
"This was never based on any discriminatory action. The settlement agreement acknowledges that. The U.S. attorney has said that. This has always been a land-use question, whether or not places of religious assembly would be located in light industrial areas," said St. Anthony City Attorney Jay Lindgren.
Lindgren said the settlement limiting religious use to 10 percent of the space and requiring a planned unit development approval is more defined than the original application.
Faust did not return a call for comment Monday.
The agreement, if approved, would also settle a separate lawsuit filed by the Islamic Center with the city agreeing to pay $200,000 in attorney fees.
Members of the Muslim community, disillusioned and suspicious by the initial rejection, were happy about news of the settlement. They called it a victory for religious freedom.
Plans for the building
Muslim leaders say the mosque is coming to St. Anthony to serve a growing Muslim community in the north metro. They say the allure of the suburbs crosses religious and cultures; they, too, want quiet neighborhoods, well-maintained homes, good schools, easy access to the city and lots of parking.
The basement mosque will also serve many of the professionals who occupy office space in the upper levels of the building, at 3055 Old Hwy. 8.
The Abu Huraira Islamic Center will maintain the upper levels as leased offices. Currently, about 25 businesses lease space, including a staffing firm, transportation companies, a home health care firm, law office, information technology company and a day care. Some are Muslim-owned. The Islamic Center's lobbyist, Nikki Carlson, said the group has already poured money into repairs and upgrades on the building's elevator, sprinkler system, security system, roof and HVAC.
Staff at Family Care Transportation, on the first floor, said they were happy the mosque will be located in the building. Family Care provides rides to nonemergency medical appointments and employs 200 drivers of all backgrounds. Several of its employees are Muslim.
Hodan Dualeh is Family Care's compliance director, who is working on her master's in biology at the University of Minnesota. She said the mosque is needed in this part of the Twin Cities.
She said the initial rejection was hard to swallow.
"I have heard in the news how Muslims are marginalized in other parts of the United States. I never thought it would be in Minnesota — one of the most liberal states. To see a fundamental right in the Constitution blatantly violated was shocking and sad at the same time," Dualeh said.
Dualeh said she is happy the U.S. Department of Justice came to their defense.
Headlines linking people of Muslim faith to terrorism and acts of violence elsewhere create confusion, she said, but shouldn't be how their local community of faith is judged.
"You can't paint 1.2 billion people for the actions of less than 1 percent," Dualeh said.
Ahmedweli Farah, vice president of Family Care Transportation, said he's thrilled that plans for the mosque are back on track.
"I was very excited about that news. Muslims will pray here. Neighbors will pray here," Farah said.
He, his wife and their two children plan to move from Bloomington to the area next spring to be closer to work. Having the Islamic Center will help foster the sense of community they want for their children. Farah said he is also interested in enrolling his children in a Muslim school in nearby Fridley.
On Monday, Abdirahman Omar and his young son and daughter explored empty rooms in the office building basement that will be converted into the Islamic Center when the city grants approval.
The children ran around while Omar, an imam in south Minneapolis who will likely lead prayer at the new St. Anthony mosque, and Farah discussed plans for the new worship space. One room will be used for the mosque. Another could be used for classrooms, offices and small meeting rooms.
Omar said he plans to attend tonight's City Council meeting. He believes pockets of "Islamphobia" may have played a part in the initial opposition to the center with some linking his faith to "hate" and "evil." The married father of three said the center will be a place to foster community and other universal values including charity and family.
"The people who come to the mosque, they want obey God and live the right way," Omar said.
The St. Anthony 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.