Feds sue city of St. Anthony for rejecting Islamic center

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The city of St. Anthony, Minnesota, is being sued by the federal government for turning down a request from a local Muslim group to open an Islamic Center within the city in 2012.

Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced Wednesday afternoon he's filing a civil rights lawsuit alleging the city's rejection of the Abu Huraira Islamic Center was a case of religious discrimination, KSTP reports.

"The people of Abu Huraira have a right to assemble peaceably – they have a right to practice their religion, and it’s our job to enforce that right," Luger said in a statement.

Abu Huraira was planning to open a prayer and meeting center in the old Medtronic headquarters building on Old Highway 8 in the spring of 2012. Since the 15,000-square-foot building was zoned light industrial, it needed a special zoning permit from the city, according to KSTP.

In June 2012, St. Anthony's planning commission recommended the project be approved, but the City Council rejected it on a 4-1 vote, saying a religious and cultural center wasn't compatible with the site's light-industrial zoning. More than 150 people attended that council meeting, and some of them made disparaging remarks about Muslims, the Star Tribune reports.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis began investigating the matter in the fall of 2012, at the urging of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, according to FOX 9. A spokeswoman says the office was unable to reach an out-of-court settlement with the two sides.

In response to the lawsuit, the St. Anthony city attorney issued a statement reiterating the city council's decision was based solely on land-use issues and not on religious grounds.

"The City Council's decision to deny the conditional use permit for the Abu Huraira Islamic Center was made only after months of a study and careful consideration of the impacts of allowing an assembly use in a zoning district specifically set aside for industrial uses. The decision is consistent with past action of the council and with sound land use policy. ... The city doesn't allow any religious uses in its industrial area. The city has a very limited industrial area which is appropriately limited to uses that create jobs."

Luger, the U.S. attorney, took issue with the city's claim, noting that the light industrial zone where the building is located allowed " 'assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls,' including a union hall with banquet facilities available to be rented by the public," according to his statement.

At the time of the vote, the only member of the city council to support the Islamic Center, Jim Roth, predicted the city would be sued over its decision, according to the Star Tribune.

St. Anthony is a small suburb of Minneapolis with a population of 8,200.

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St. Anthony City Council members have rejected plans to locate an Islamic center in the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters off Old Hwy. 8. The proposed Abu-Huraira Islamic Center had been on hold for months after some residents objected to the center and city leaders studied whether city zoning would support the facility.