City leaders said if they had turned down Asatru Folk Assembly, they would have faced an expensive legal battle.
When the church doors open, only white people will be allowed inside.
That’s the message the Asatru Folk Assembly in Murdock, Minnesota, is sending after being granted a conditional use permit to open a church there and practice its pre-Christian religion that originated in northern Europe.
Despite a council vote officially approving the permit this month, residents are pushing back against the decision.
Opponents have collected about 50,000 signatures on an online petition to stop the all-white church from making its home in the farming town of 280 people.
“I think they thought they could fly under the radar in a small town like this, but we’d like to keep the pressure on them,” said Peter Kennedy, a longtime Murdock resident. “Racism is not welcome here.”
Many locals said they support the growing population of Latinos, who have moved to the area in the past decade because of job opportunities, over the church.
“Just because the council gave them a conditional permit does not mean that the town and people in the area surrounding will not be vigilant in watching and protecting our area,” Jean Lesteberg, who lives in the neighboring town of De Graff, wrote on the city’s Facebook page.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Asatru Folk Assembly as a “neo-Volkisch hate group” that couches “their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity.”
Many residents call them a white supremacist or white separatist group, but church members deny it.
“We’re not. It’s just simply not true,” said Allen Turnage, a folk assembly board member. “Just because we respect our own culture, that doesn’t mean we are denigrating someone else’s.”
The group, based in Brownsville, California, says teachings and membership are for those of strictly European bloodlines.
The church was looking for a new church in the eastern North Dakota region when they came across Murdock. It’s unknown how many members they have worldwide or how many people will attend the new church.
“We do not need salvation. All we need is freedom to face our destiny with courage and honor,” the group wrote on its website about their beliefs. “We honor the Gods under the names given to them by our Germanic/Norse ancestors.”
Their forefathers, according to the website, were “Angels and Saxons, Lombards and Heruli, Goths and Vikings, and, as sons and daughters of these people, they are united by ties of blood and culture undimmed by centuries.”
“We respect the ways our ancestors viewed the world and approached the universe a thousand years ago,” Turnage said.
A small contingent of church supporters in Murdock said the community should be open-minded and respectful to all.
“I find it hypocritical, for lack of a better term, of my community to show much hate towards something they don’t understand. I for one don’t see a problem with it,” Jesse James, who said he has lived in Murdock for 26 years, wrote on Facebook.
“I do not wish to follow in this pagan religion, however, I feel it’s important to recognize and support each other’s beliefs,” he said.
Murdock council members said they do not support the church but were legally obligated to approve the permit, which they did in a 3-1 decision.
“We were highly advised by our attorney to pass this permit for legal reasons to protect the First Amendment rights,” Mayor Craig Kavanagh said. “We knew that if this was going to be denied, we were going to have a legal battle on our hands that could be pretty expensive.”
City Attorney Don Wilcox said it came down to free speech and freedom of religion.
“I think there’s a great deal of sentiment in the town that they don’t want that group there,” he said. “You can’t just bar people from practicing whatever religion they want or saying anything they want as long as it doesn’t incite violence.”
Stephanie Hoff, whose council term ends this month, cast the only dissenting vote.
“I know that we have the legality standpoint, and I personally felt we had a chance to fight it. I think we could have fought it had we went to court,” she said, basing her argument on proving municipal harm. “I felt that we had a case with the emotional and mental well being of the city of Murdock.”
The farming town about a 115-mile drive 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’re a welcoming community,” Kennedy said, rejecting the Asatru Folk Assembly’s exclusionary beliefs. “That’s not at all what the people of Murdock feel. Nobody had a problem with the Hispanics here.”
The AFA purchased its building this year on property in a residential zone. Constructed as a Lutheran church before the zoning was changed, it was later converted to a private residence. The folk assembly needed the permit to convert the residence back to a church.
The vote has drawn national attention and condemnation.
“It’s ironic the city council didn’t want to commit discrimination against the church, but the church is discriminating against Blacks,” said Abigail Suiter, 33, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It’s very telling of where the priority is and whose lives matter.”
Prominent lawyers disagree on the council’s options heading into the vote. Some of the debate centered on the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions and churches from unduly burdens and discriminatory land-use regulations.
The law prevents municipalities from discriminating against the placement of churches in residential neighborhoods, said attorney Brian Egan, a municipal law expert on Long Island, New York.
“It’s a tightrope for municipalities to walk,” Egan said. “One man’s religion of hate is another man’s religion of love.”
Other lawyers said the property’s zoning was enough to reject the permit.
“They could have said the whole area has become residential, we don’t want churches in a residential area because it’s incompatible with our comprehensive plan,” said David Schultz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota, ” … because at that point they’re not making a decision based upon the viewpoint or content of speech.”
Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, said the council might have been able to prevent the private sale of the property, had it known about it, through laws focused on forbidding racial discrimination in property transactions.
“No institution that proposes to exclude people on account of race is allowed to run an operation in the state of Minnesota,” Tribe said.
Kavanagh said he stands by the council vote “for legal reasons only.”
“The biggest thing people don’t understand is, because we’ve approved this permit, all of a sudden everyone feels this town is racist, and that isn’t the case,” he said. “Just because we voted yes doesn’t mean we’re racist.”