A judge has rejected an attempt by the priest of a whites-only church to silence a critic who has spoken out against the arrival of the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) in Murdock, Minn.
In her ruling, issued Thursday, Kandiyohi County District Judge Stephanie Beckman wrote that criticism of the controversial church is "a matter of public concern," and that critics were engaged in "education and outreach."
Jason Plourde is the priest of the AFA, a Nordic heritage religion that opened a "hof," or church, last year in an abandoned Lutheran church in the Swift County town of about 275 residents some 115 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Members have been renovating the building, and no services have been held there yet.
The AFA, which allows only white members of European descent, has been identified by religious scholars as a white supremacist group. It has been denounced by other heathen religious groups for its views.
Last year, as city officials debated whether to grant the church a permit to operate, local residents formed a group called Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate (MAAAH).
Led by one of the organizers, Victoria Guillemard, the group spoke out against the Asatru and Plourde. As Plourde aggressively networked in the area, Guillemard approached businesses and local organizations to inform them of who he was and what she believed his church stood for.
Plourde responded last month with a petition for a harassment restraining order in Kandiyohi County District Court. In it, he claimed Guillemard was targeting him because of his faith. Guillemard and others were "spamming" his social media pages, he said, as well as launching character attacks against him with local businesses and organizations.
In her ruling, Beckman said there was no evidence that Guillemard "engaged in harassing conduct or that her speech rises to the level of harassment."
The judge noted that Guillemard never contacted Plourde personally or targeted him as an individual. "Rather, the views of [Plourde] and his organization are the target and focus of [Guillemard] and MAAAH," she wrote.
Guillemard, who is finishing her second year at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, said Friday that she found the harassment case stressful and is glad the judge came out strongly for free speech.
"This was Jason trying to intimidate members of a community he's trying to charm," she said. "He was trying to intimidate them out of exercising their rights as citizens."
Plourde often threatens legal action against those he perceives as critics, she added, a point noted in the judge's ruling.
"The important part of all this is recognizing that the AFA made a promise to the Murdock City Council," Guillemard said. Church leaders told the council "the AFA just wanted to be good neighbors. I do not believe that good neighbors try to intimidate people out of exercising their rights with frivolous lawsuits."
Plourde did not respond to requests for comment.
"Asatru" is an old Norse word roughly meaning "belief in the gods." It's used by a number of groups, primarily in North America and Europe, that practice a Nordic version of heathenism, or pagan religion.
The Asatru movement is young, starting in Iceland about 50 years ago, and has tens of thousands of followers worldwide.
Not all Asatru groups follow the same creed. The beliefs of the Asatru Folk Assembly, as laid out on the group's website, are explicitly pro-white.
"We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships," according to the AFA's statement of ethics. "We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own.
"We believe that those activities and behaviors supportive of the white family should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors destructive of the white family are to be discouraged."
Plourde and other AFA members say they're simply celebrating their ethnic heritage. But religious scholars who study pagan and heathen religions have identified the AFA as a racist fringe group, said Holli Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary in South Carolina, a seminary for pagan and Earth-based spiritualities.
"They hold white supremacist beliefs," Emore said. "It is widely accepted."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402