The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit Wednesday against St. Anthony Village, Minnesota, over the city council’s decision to deny the Abu Huraira Islamic Center’s application for a worship space in a business center. Federal prosecutors say the council unfairly denied the application and treated it “on less than equal terms” than non-religious permit requests.
The lawsuit was filed by acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minneapolis. They maintain that St. Anthony Village is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, and seek a determination that will order the city to allow the Abu Huraira Islamic Center to use a basement space at the St. Anthony Business Center.
“Freedom of religion and the right to peaceably assemble are enshrined for all Americans in the Bill of Rights,” said Luger. “This office conducted a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the city council’s decision to deny Abu Huraira the right to worship in the St. Anthony Business Center. … The people of Abu Huraira have a right to peaceably assemble – they have a right to practice their religion, and it’s our job to enforce that right.”
Abu Huraira Islamic Center first applied for the permit in June 2012 to alleviate overcrowding at other Minneapolis-area mosques, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The Twin Cities metro area has a significant Somali Muslim population. A number of disparaging remarks were made at the June city council meeting, worrying Abu Huraira members and community members. The council denied the permit 4-1, arguing the center doesn’t qualify under the building’s light-industrial zoning designation and that the decision had nothing to do with religion.
“Religious uses of any type are allowed in the vast majority of the city. They are just not allowed in the roughly 5 percent of the city reserved for industrial uses,” said St. Anthony City Attorney Jay Lindgren.
The Justice Department argues that the denial burdens members, forcing them to travel to overcrowded Islamic centers for group prayers across the city. In August Abu Huraira offered to buy the building in question for just under $2 million, but was denied. Federal prosecutors reportedly pursued an out-of-court deal between St. Anthony Village and Abu Huraira in 2013, but no accord was reached.