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Feds investigate Islamic center’s rejection

Rose French, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

The U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis announced Monday that it is launching a formal civil rights investigation into the rejection of a proposed Islamic center in St. Anthony.

Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the office, says the agency began a preliminary review of the case in June after the St. Anthony City Council voted down the proposed Abu Huraira Islamic Center.

Cooney said the U.S. attorney’s office wants to reach an out-of-court resolution with all parties.

“Nothing’s been filed with the court. A case has not been filed,” she said. “Our goal is still to reach some kind of agreement with everyone involved.”

The move makes the St. Anthony case one of about 28 nationally in which federal officials are investigating local refusals to allow mosques and Islamic centers, said the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Bias or consistency?

The Minnesota CAIR chapter asked federal authorities to investigate after St. Anthony rejected the proposed Islamic center on the grounds that a religious and cultural center was incompatible with the site’s light-industrial zoning. During the meeting, St. Anthony residents expressed opposition to the project and some made disparaging remarks about the Muslim faith.

The Minnesota chapter of CAIR lauded the move by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“We applaud the commitment by the U.S. Department of Justice to uphold federal laws and take a strong stance against recent anti-mosque bigotry in Minnesota and nationwide,” CAIR-MN Executive Director Lori Saroya said in a statement.

St. Anthony City Manager Mark Casey and City Council members have maintained the decision was grounded solely in land-use issues, not religious discrimination.

“We will cooperate 100 percent [with federal authorities] as we have in the past,” Casey said. “The city firmly believes the Department of Justice will find the city treated the Islamic center in a manner consistent with other similar applicants and in compliance with RLUIPA. Our decision is consistent with past actions of the City Council and with sound land-use policy.”

Looking for agreement

The Muslim group that had sought permission to open an Islamic center in the former Medtronic Inc. headquarters in St. Anthony recently bought the building for $1.9 million.

Sadik Warfa, a spokesman for the Muslim group, said it welcomed the investigation. At this point, he says the group has no plans to file suit against the city and wants to resolve the matter out of court.

“We purchased the building and we need that building because the needs of our community are growing,” he said. “We know we’re on the right side of the law. We would like to see things resolved, if possible.”

CAIR-MN reports the St. Anthony Islamic center is the fourth mosque opposition incident in Minnesota in the past year. The other three mosque projects — Plymouth, Willmar and Bloomington — were eventually approved despite community opposition.

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