Officials in the small town of Murdock in Minnesota have been catching heat from a section of residents and non-residents after the town’s council granted a conditional use permit for the Asatru Folk Assembly to open a church branch.
Sometime this month, the Murdock City Council voted 3-1 to approve the permit though its members said they neither support the church nor what it stands for, adding that it was solely based on legal grounds. However, some residents in the farming town – whose population is 280 with 20% of them being Latinos – have registered their displeasure and are lobbying for the approval to be reversed.
“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,” Peter Kennedy, a resident of the town, told the news outlet. “Racism is not welcome here.”
Another person from a neighboring town also said: “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.”
Per the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asatru Folk Assembly is a “neo-Volkisch hate group” whose members “couch their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity.”
“At the cross-section of hypermasculinity and ethnocentricity, this movement seeks to defend against the unfounded threats of the extermination of white people and their children.”
The center added: “A late 2017 Instagram post by the Ásatrú Folk Assembly (AFA), perhaps this country’s largest neo-Völkisch hate group, exemplifies how Folkish adherents profess their urgency for preserving Folkish ways. The post’s caption, drawing on a popular racist meme, reads: ‘In these mixed-up times it is important to remember not only that it is okay to be white but also that we owe to our descendants the same sturdy roots from which we ourselves have grown.’”
Describing their bloodline on their website, the church said their forefathers 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.”
Though the church has been labeled by several residents as either White supremacist or a White supremacist group, its members have denied it, NBC News reported. “We’re not. It’s just simply not true,” folk assembly board member, Allen Turnage, said. “Just because we respect our own culture, that doesn’t mean we are denigrating someone else’s.”
Despite the rebuke from the town’s residents, Mayor Craig Kavanagh threw his weight behind the council’s decision.
“We were highly advised by our attorney to pass this permit for legal reasons to protect the First Amendment rights,” he 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.”
He also reiterated his support was “for legal reasons only” and said the decision doesn’t mean the town is racist. “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,” Kavanagh said. “Just because we voted yes doesn’t mean we’re racist.”
City Attorney Don Wilcox also told NBC News the decision was taken based on peoples’ right 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,” Wilcox 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.”
The property the Asatru Folk Assembly bought, sits in a residential zone. Though it was previously built as a Lutheran church prior to the zoning, it was later converted into a residence, NBC News reported. As such, the new “owners” needed to request a permit in order to be able to convert it back to a church.
Some lawyers who spoke to the news outlet had divided views about the permit being granted. Brian Egan, a municipal law expert, referred to a law that prohibited municipalities from discriminating against churches that wanted approval to set up in residential neighborhoods.
“It’s a tightrope for municipalities to walk,” Egan said. “One man’s religion of hate is another man’s religion of love.”
Others, however, said the city council could have simply denied the request by using the zoning of the property as basis. “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,” David Schultz, a constitutional law professor, said. “… because at that point they’re not making a decision based upon the viewpoint or content of speech.”
Another constitutional law professor, Laurence H. Tribe, said the council could have been able to block the private sale of the property based on state laws that prohibit racial discrimination in such transactions – if they knew about it.
“No institution that proposes to exclude people on account of race is allowed to run an operation in the state of Minnesota,” the professor said.