After permit approved for whites-only church, small Minnesota town insists it isn't racist

When the church doors open, only white people are allowed in.
This is the message the Asatru People's Assembly in Murdock, Minnesota, sends after receiving conditional use permission to open a church and practice their pre-Christian religion, which originated in Northern Europe.
Despite a council vote officially approving the permit this month, residents are pushing against the decision.
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The opponents have collected around 50,000 signatures in an online petition to prevent the all-white church from being at home in the farming town with 280 inhabitants.
"I think they thought they could fly under the radar in a small town like this, but we want to keep the pressure on them," said Peter Kennedy, a longtime Murdock resident. "Racism is not welcome here."
The church that bought the Asatru Folk Assembly and is applying for permission to use it as a regional church in Murdock, Minnesota (Renee Jones Schneider / Star Tribune via AP)
Many locals said they are providing support through the Church to the growing population of Latinos who have moved to the area for job opportunities in the past decade.
"Just because the council has given them conditional permission doesn't mean that the city and the people in the area will not be vigilant when they watch and protect our area," wrote Jean Lesteberg, who lives in the neighboring town of De Graff City Facebook page.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Asatru Folk Assembly as a "neo-popular hate group" that "articulates its bigotry in unsubstantiated assertions of bloodlines that establish the superiority of its own white identity".
Many residents call them a white supremacist or white separatist group, but Church members deny this.
Asatru Folk Assembly attorney and member Allen Turnage will return to his headquarters in Murdock, Minnesota on Wednesday, October 14, 2020 after answering questions from the public. (Renee Jones Schneider / Star Tribune via AP)
"Weren't. It's just not true," said Allen Turnage, a board member of the People's Assembly. "Just because we respect our own culture doesn't mean we denigrate others."
The Brownsville, California-based group says teaching and membership are for those of strictly European bloodlines.
The Church was looking for a new church in eastern North Dakota when they came across Murdock. It is not known how many members they have worldwide or how many people will attend the new church.
“We don't need redemption. We just need the freedom to face our fate with courage and honor, ”wrote the group on their website about their beliefs. "We honor the gods under the names that our Germanic / Nordic ancestors gave them."
Their ancestors were, according to the website, "Angels and Saxons, Lombards and Heruli, Goths and Vikings, and as sons and daughters of these people, they are linked by blood and cultural ties that have remained unbroken for centuries."
"We respect the way our ancestors viewed the world and approached the universe a thousand years ago," said Turnage.
A small contingent of Church supporters in Murdock said the ward should be open and respectful of everyone.
"I find it hypocritical when my community, for lack of a better expression, shows a lot of hatred for something they don't understand. I see no problem with that," wrote Jesse James, who said he lived in Murdock for 26 years, on Facebook.
"I don't want to follow this pagan religion, but I think it's important to recognize and support each other's beliefs," he said.
Murdock Council members said they don't support the church but are legally required to approve approval, which they did in a 3: 1 decision.
"Our attorney has urged us to give this approval on legal grounds to protect First Amendment rights," said Mayor Craig Kavanagh. "We knew we would have a lawsuit if this were turned down." Hands that could be quite expensive. "
Prosecutor Don Wilcox said freedom of speech and freedom of religion mattered.
"I think there are a lot of feelings in town that they don't want that group there," he said. “You can't just stop people from practicing any religion they want or from saying anything they want unless it is inciting violence. "
Stephanie Hoff, whose term ends this month, cast the only vote against.
“I know we are taking the legal position, and personally I felt we had a chance to fight it. I think we could have combated this if we had gone to court, ”she said, basing her argument on evidence of community damage. "I felt we had a case with the city of Murdock's emotional and mental well-being."
The farming town about 115 miles west of Minneapolis is known for producing corn and soybeans, which are shipped across the country. Latinos make up about 20 percent of Murdock's small population. Many are day laborers from Mexico and Central America, city officials said.
"We are a welcoming community," said Kennedy, rejecting the exclusionary beliefs of the Asatru People's Assembly. "The people in Murdock don't feel that at all. Nobody here had a problem with the Hispanics."
AFA bought their building this year on a piece of land in a residential zone. Built as a Lutheran church before the zoning change, it was later converted into a private residence. The people's assembly needed permission to convert the residence back into a church.
The vote has drawn national attention and condemnation.
"It's ironic that the city council didn't want to discriminate against the Church, but the Church discriminates against blacks," said Abigail Suiter, 33, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "It is very indicative of where the priority is and whose lives matter."
Prominent lawyers disagree on the council's options for voting. Part of the debate revolved around the Federal Law on Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons, which protects religious institutions and churches from inappropriate burdens and discriminatory land use regulations.
The law prevents local authorities from discriminating against placement of churches in residential areas, said lawyer Brian Egan, an expert on local law on Long Island, New York.
"It's a tightrope walk for local authorities to walk," said Egan. "One man's religion of hatred is another man's religion of love."
Other lawyers said the zoning of the property was sufficient to deny permission.
"You could have said the entire area has become residential. We don't want churches in a residential area because it is inconsistent with our overall plan," said David Schultz, professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota at the time do not make a decision based on the point of view or the content of the language. "
Laurence H. Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, said the council could potentially have prevented the private sale of the property if it had known about it through laws aimed at banning racial discrimination in real estate transactions.
"No institution that proposes to exclude people because of race is allowed to perform an operation in the state of Minnesota," Tribe said.
Kavanagh said he was standing on the council's vote "only for legal reasons".
"The biggest thing people don't understand is that all of this city is racist because we gave that permit, and that's not the case," he said. "Just because we voted yes doesn't mean we are racist."
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