Islamic center in St. Anthony voted down, feds asked to investigate

Nickalas Tabbert

Federal authorities have been asked to look into a vote that turned down a proposed Islamic center in St. Anthony after Muslims claimed bias was involved in the decision.

The city council voted 4-to-1 Tuesday against an application for a conditional use permit that would have allowed the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center to be established, the Pioneer Press said.

About 150 people attended the meeting, where Muslim proponents asked the council to approve the nearly 15,000-square-foot center in the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters building.  Had it been approved, the center would have been used for worship and assembly by the congregation of about 200, the Star Tribune said.

Nearly a dozen St. Anthony residents asked the council to deny the proposal, which they said would reduce tax revenues.  Mayor Jerry Faust denied the argument and also tried to discourage disparaging comments made about the Muslim faith during the meeting.

The council also unanimously voted to approve a change to the city code clarifying the definition of assembly, allowing religious and non-religious assemblies to be established in commercial zones and prohibiting all assemblies in light industrial zones, where the Islamic center was to be located.

Under the previous city code, churches, synagogues and temples were allowed in residential areas only and assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls were allowed in both commercial and light industrial zones, the Press said.

In order to establish the center within St. Anthony, the applicant must now find a new site and re-apply for a conditional use permit, said City Manager Mark Casey.

If the application had been approved as submitted, the center would have been grandfathered in as a legal, non-conforming use, provided the center did not expand, Casey said.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said discrimination was at play.  The four council members who voted against the Islamic center said the city has not discriminated against the Muslim group and that the project has always been about land use and zoning, the Tribune said.

In addition to St. Anthony, other proposed mosques and Islamic centers have met opposition in Plymoth, Bloomington and Willmar, Minn., but governments ultimately approved them, said Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR.

“Any time a new [Muslim] community moves in, there is that transition period,” she said.  “We find the people in Minnesota are pretty open and welcoming, and it doesn’t become a big deal.”