The Chisago County Board is expected Wednesday to take a fresh look at its decision in December to reject a Muslim cemetery after learning that the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation of the north metro county for religious discrimination.
The County Board also faces the threat of civil litigation from the state’s Muslim community. County officials are aware that a south metro township that turned down a Muslim cemetery had that decision rejected in the courts.
All sides were reticent on Tuesday about the case, especially after it emerged that one of Chisago’s five county commissioners won’t be at the special meeting because she’s hospitalized in critical condition after a freeway crash.
But it is known that the County Board met behind closed doors last week to consider its options before calling a special meeting for Wednesday — open to the public — to reconsider the case.
In an e-mail message, County Administrator Bruce Messelt confirmed that Chisago County is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice on its “zoning and land use practices pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” which protects against religious discrimination.
The cemetery is being sought by European rather than Middle Eastern Muslims, but has nonetheless been the subject of virulent objections locally on social media and in other quarters. The request came from Minneapolis Muslims of Bosnian origins who were looking for affordable land within reasonable distance of the metro area.
The proposed site is south of Chisago City, in a rural township just north of the Washington County line.
Just before Christmas, the Chisago board voted 3-2 to deny the request, even though the county’s planning commission recommended the project and the county’s staff backed it.
It is far from the first such case in the metro area. Muslim cemeteries have often been opposed, including in Dakota County about a year ago when a judge ruled that Castle Rock Township’s attempt to block such a cemetery was “arbitrary and capricious,” and allowed it.
Threat of litigation
In the Chisago case, Messelt said, similar litigation was in the offing. The county “was recently served notice by the Islamic Community of Bosniaks of Minnesota of its appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals,” he said. “While this appeal has been subsequently dismissed by the appellant, the county anticipates likely further litigation.”
A number of people involved, including a county commissioner who opposed the board’s decision and Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said they will make statements after the County Board reconsiders the case but not before.
The special board meeting will begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Chisago County Government Center, 313 N. Main St., Center City. Officials cautioned that the meeting may have to be closed to the public at times because it does still involve the threat of litigation.
Hussein acknowledged that CAIR has been actively involved. “We’ve had our national group retained to deal with this and have found other partners to address the case and process an appeal,” he said.
A new and somber note emerged this week when the State Patrol reported that a woman involved in a fiery crash Saturday on Interstate 35 that killed another driver was Chisago County Commissioner Lora Walker, 47.
That means the reconsideration of the cemetery request now involves just two commissioners who initially turned it down, along with the two who voted to approve it.
Opposition to the cemetery took varying forms, including complaints from neighbors that the Muslim tradition of burying bodies without caskets would pollute drinking water.
But these days so-called “green burials” are in vogue in lots of places. It was far from clear, given legal precedent, that any objections would stand up in court.