The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate a possible "anti-Muslim" hate crime after St. Anthony City Council almost unanimously rejected plans for a new Islamic center due to zoning concerns.
On Tuesday, St. Anthony City Council voted 4-1 against providing a conditional use permit for the "Abu-Huraira Islamic Center" after tabling the item for months, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. It is reportedly the first time in seven years that an Islamic place of worship has been blocked by local government in Minnesota.
"This is the first one [in Minnesota] where we're seeing so much anti-Muslim hate involved," said Lori Saroya, president of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR.
The imam of the Islamic center, Sheik Ahmed Burale, said his congregation, which consists of roughly 200 people, still wants the St. Anthony location and may take the council to court over its decision, according to the Star Tribune.
There were reportedly "several residents" who criticized Islam and at least one called the religion "evil" and one that condones violence.
On Wednesday, CAIR circulated this press release:
CAIR-MN is asking federal authorities to determine whether the denial of land usage for the Islamic center constitutes a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
RLUIPA protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. RLUIPA and the Minnesota Constitution ban zoning restrictions that impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person or institution unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest for imposing zoning restrictions and that the restriction is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.
"We ask the DOJ to use the full measure of its authority to launch a thorough investigation into the recent denial of the proposed Abu-Huraira Islamic Center," wrote [Saroya].
Saroya said CAIR-MN is also asking DOJ officials to meet with St. Anthony Muslim leaders.
The Islamic center will also reportedly get some help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in future court proceedings if there are any. The group regularly jumps at the chance to defend Islamic groups.
Judging from news reports, the majority of St. Anthony residents appeared to be against the Islamic center.
"You don't live in the area, why are you looking in this area?" St. Anthony resident George Kaczor asked during the council meeting. "Why don't you build in your own community?"
Another resident, Rob Lundeen, said there are "no pluses at all in letting this mosque in our city."
"It's a lose lose situation," he continued. "If we get used by the ACLU, so be it. The ACLU doesn't win them all. Let's stand up for every little community and not be bullied."
However, at a least one Muslim woman – dressed in traditional Islamic garb covering everything but her eyes – spoke in support of the mosque.
"Let there be a chance for an Islamic center to break the tensions between the people," Aysha Wazwaz told council members. "Let that islamic center bring the classmates together. Let that islamic center be an open house."
City Council members maintain that zoning issues were behind the decision not religious discrimination.
Council member Hal Gray said various religious groups have asked to locate houses of worship in similar light "industrial" zones, which council believes should be reserved for businesses.
"The industrial zone is set up for business, manufacturing, things like that," he told the Star Tribune. "We have a very small area in St. Anthony set aside for industrial. So the more we take out of that, the less there is for economic development, jobs, et cetera."
Gray also condemned some of the anti-Muslim statements made during the meeting, calling it "unfortunate" and that they don't represent the "majority of St. Anthony residents" or the feelings of City Council members.
The 4-1 vote came a week after the St. Anthony Planning Commission encouraged City Council to approve the Islamic center.
If history tells us anything, there is a good chance of the DOJ responding to CAIR's request. The Star Tribune reports that the Justice Department has launched investigations into 28 similar cases where new mosques were blocked.
"I think the overwhelming experience [for Muslims] has been positive in Minnesota," Saroya told the Star Tribune. "There's just a different culture here where people are more welcoming. The majority do have positive experiences, but there are groups of people in our community who are very vocal about their lack of understanding of Islam."
Muslim communities have found a permanent home in Minnesota and Saroya estimates there are about 150,000 Muslims and close to 40 mosques throughout the state.
The Department of Justice had not reposed to CAIR's request as of 9 a.m. Thursday.
From KTSP in Minneapolis:
This story has been updated.