A western Minnesota city on Wednesday approved a permit that will allow an alleged pagan white supremacist group to open a gathering place at a former church in town.
Despite resistance from residents, the Murdock City Council anonymously voted 3-1 to approve a conditional use permit for the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA), which allows the group to use the former church it purchased over the summer as a gathering place called the Baldurshof: Third Hof.
The AFA, which calls itself a Nordic heritage group, is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which calls it a Neo-Volkisch hate group that believes in the need for micro-societies to "preserve their ethnicity and combat alleged white genocide."
It wasn't clear during the meeting who voted in favor of granting the permit because a roll call vote wasn't taken. The meeting was virtual due to COVID-19 and none of the City Council members had their video active, so people watching the meeting couldn't tell who was talking – all they saw was a black screen, according to media reports.
The City of Murdock did publish the meeting minutes on its Facebook page on Thursday, which says Council members Pat Thorson, Jim Diederich, and Kelly Demuth voted in favor of the resolution approving the conditional use permit, while Council member Stephanie Hoff opposed it. And in a statement on Thursday, Murdock Mayor Craig Kavanagh apologized for the issues with the virtual meeting.
The Murdock City Council has been discussing the conditional use permit for months. It held a public hearing on it in October and planned to vote on it in November, but the vote was pushed back to Wednesday, Dec. 9, so the city could "get more clarification and questions answered," a city Facebook post said.
Mayor Kavanagh at the start of Wednesday's meeting acknowledged this issue is controversial and stressed that it is a zoning matter; council members weren't voting on how they felt about AFA. They were also advised that rejecting the AFA's permit request could violate the group's religious rights, the Star Tribune reports.
In a statement on Thursday, Kavanagh stressed that Wednesday's vote to approve the conditional use permit (CUP) "had nothing to do with beliefs or race, it was strictly a zoning issue."
"This vote was about a zoning permit to let an old abandoned church be used for exactly what it was built for – 'a church,'" Kavanagh said, noting the City Council was "highly advised by multiple legal sources" to not deny the permit because doing so could cause a "substantial burden to the town."
He added, "If you think this decision was a cakewalk and you jump to a conclusion that because we approved the CUP zoning, we are racists, you are dead wrong."
The Third Hof of the AFA celebrated the decision that allows them to open the Baldurshof, thanking the City Council for approving the permit.
"We know there was a lot of pressure on you to deny us our permit and right to worship. We appreciate your fairness and this opportunity," a post on Facebook said.
The group has been working on renovating the former 120-year-old Calvary Lutheran Church into a gathering place, which will serve people from across the Midwest for worship, fellowship and celebration, according to AFA's website.
The pressure to deny the permit to open a gathering place in the Swift County town of fewer than 300 people has been steady for months, including from concerned residents who formed the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate. The group worked to share their concerns about "the inherent dangers of allowing a white supremacist group to use a residentially zoned property as a place of assembly in our small town," a Facebook post from the group said.
Over the past few months, they've held protests and vigils to raise awareness about their cause. And on Wednesday, about two dozen people protested the AFA along U.S. Highway 12.
The Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate commented on Wednesday's City Council vote in a statement on Facebook, saying council members "voted to allow hate, discrimination, and racism into our town."
"Murdock: take tonight to breathe, regroup your thoughts, and remember that tomorrow is a new day. We have lots of work ahead of us," the post said.
In a post on Thursday, Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate called the permit approval "devastating," saying residents no longer feel safe in their community.
The Murdock City Council approved a one-year permit for the AFA, which is renewable each year. Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate organizer Victoria Guillemart told the West Central Tribune that they have a year to gather evidence to show how the AFA harms the community.
She told the Star Tribune they'll also be working to educate the broader community about the AFA "so that if the AFA approaches people and tries to do any recruiting, people are prepared and are aware of what kind of group they are."
A group Heathens Against Hate, which says it advocates for inclusive Heathenry and to combat hate and bigotry, said on Facebook it stands by the people of Murdock to oppose the AFA, adding "The fight will continue even after today to bring awareness to Heathen extremism and its vile disruption of communities."
What is the Asatru Folk Assembly?
The AFA says it believes in "an expression of the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Europe," with its Statement of Ethics explicitly calling for the preservation of white families, saying it supports "strong, healthy white family relationships" and wants its members to grow up to have "white children of their own."
The Statement of Ethics also says AFA's members should be ready for the challenge to defend "our folk" with "both cunning and physical skill when needed" and be prepared to "stand against those forces" that seek to destroy them.
Want to know more? An opinion piece, written by Nina Clark and published by MinnPost in October, looks at Minnesota's Nordic history and groups like AFA that use Nordic heritage as weapons against people of color, with Clark saying people shouldn't ignore the misuse of history, but should "hold it up for study." Have a read of it here.
As of 2019, there were at least two AFA groups established in Minnesota – one in Bloomington and one in Newport, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.