Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger for the District of Minnesota today announced the filing of a lawsuit against the city of St. Anthony Village for an alleged violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Specifically, the lawsuit seeks injunctive relief requiring St. Anthony Village to allow the Abu Huraira Islamic Center to maintain a worship space in the basement of the St. Anthony Business Center.
“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished rights, and there are few aspects of that right more central than the ability of communities to establish places for collective worship,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Moran.
“Freedom of religion and the right to peaceably assemble are enshrined for all Americans in the Bill of Rights,” said U.S. Attorney Luger. “This office conducted a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the City Council’s decision to deny Abu Huraira the right to worship in the St. Anthony Business Center. We aggressively sought to resolve this matter without a lawsuit. However, it is a solemn duty of all United States Attorneys to uphold the Constitution. The people of Abu Huraira have a right to peaceably assemble – they have a right to practice their religion, and it’s our job to enforce that right.”
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, alleges that the St. Anthony Village City Council treated an application for a conditional use permit to assemble in the St. Anthony Business Center filed by Abu Huraira on less than equal terms as other, non-religious, conditional use permits for assembly. The denial of the necessary permit for the worship center unlawfully disfavored a religious use, because the light industrial zone where the building is located allowed “assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls,” including a union hall with banquet facilities available to be rented by the public.
In addition to Abu Huraira’s treatment on less than equal terms to similarly situated secular organizations, the denial of Abu Huraira’s permit substantially burdens its members in practicing their faith. Abu Huraira members’ ability to exercise their religion is limited by their current worship site options, including, but not limited to the fact that members in the northern Twin Cities are burdened from praying together based on the length of time it takes to travel to the worship centers in south Minneapolis. Moreover, prayer space at locations in south Minneapolis are too small to accommodate members, many of whom often have to pray in hallways or entryways, and hold multiple prayer sessions in shifts to accommodate crowds.
After conducting a search for adequate prayer space lasting nearly three years, Abu Huraira entered into a purchase agreement for the St. Anthony Business Center. The business center is an ideal location for Abu Huraira because it is centrally located, has a basement measuring approximately 11,600 square feet and has ample parking. The business center is in the “light industrial” zone of St. Anthony, conditional uses for which included “assemblies, meeting lodges, and convention halls.”
In February 2012, after consulting St. Anthony Village officials, Abu Huraira applied for a conditional use permit for assembly in the light industrial zone. It was denied on June 12, 2012, by a St. Anthony Village City Council vote of 4-1, despite the professional St. Anthony City Planning Staff recommending approval, despite the St. Anthony Village City Planning Commission recommending approval and despite members of Abu Huraira attending each meeting of the Council and Planning Commission to address any concerns held by the city.
The lawsuit filed by the department seeks to enforce Abu Huraira’s constitutional rights under RLUIPA by requiring St. Anthony Village to grant the conditional use permit to allow Abu Huraira to assemble for the purpose of worship.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Bahram Samie, Ana Voss, and Greg Brooker as well as Justice Department attorneys from the Civil Rights Division are representing the United States in this matter.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains multiple provisions prohibiting religious discrimination and protecting against unjustified burdens on religion exercise. Persons who believe that they been subjected to religious discrimination in land use or zoning may contact the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at 1-800-896-7743. More information about RLUIPA, including a report on the first ten years of its enforcement, may be found at http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/hce/rluipaexplain.php .