The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a federal lawsuit against a Minnesota city, alleging the city violated RLUIPA when it denied the Abu Huraira Islamic Center’s (Abu Huraira) application for a conditional use permit to operate a worship facility in the basement of a building Abu Hurairaowns.
After looking for adequate prayer space in St. Anthony for nearly 3 years, Abu Huraira, a Somali-American Muslim congregation, purchased the St. Anthony Business Center. The Business Center is located in the City’s “light industrial” zoning district, and is in a central location with adequate worship space and ample parking. The three above-ground levels of the building are all currently leased to businesses, while the basement portion is presently vacant.
In 2012, Abu Huraira submitted a conditional use permit application to the city of St. Anthony, in which it requested permission to operate a worship facility in the 11,600-square-foot basement space of the St. Anthony Business Center. Controversy ensued after Abu Huraira submitted its application. Apparently, during the City Council meeting in June 2012, various members of the public overtly expressed their religious animus against Islam. The City Council then denied Abu Huraira’s application, even though St. Anthony’s Planning Staff and Planning Commission both recommended approval of the request.
The DOJ then conducted a multi-year investigation into St. Anthony’s conduct. Apparently, the DOJ made various attempts to settle the dispute outside of litigation, all of which the City refused. Consequently, on August 27, the DOJ filed the instant lawsuit, asserting the City’s actions violated several RLUIPA provisions and seeking injunction relief mandating the City grant Abu Huraira’s conditional use permit request. Specifically, the DOJ asserts the City’s action violate RLUIPA’s Equal Terms Clause. While the City allows assemblies, meeting lodges and convention halls as permitted conditional uses in the light industrial zone, it refused to allow Abu Huraira – a similarly situated religious institution – from operating in the same zone. Abu Huraira also claims the City’s actions violate RLUIPA’s Substantial Burden Clause. Its members currently have limited worship site options, which inhibit all the members from being able to exercise their religious beliefs together and force the members to travel to various worship sites all across south Minneapolis.
The City remains steadfast in its position that its denial of Abu Huraira’s application is entirely based on job generation. Nevertheless, the City has failed to name a single business that has expressed interest in leasing the basement space. While the DOJ has filed several RLUIPA lawsuits across the country on behalf of Islamic institutions, United States of America v. City of St. Anthony Village, Minn. marks the DOJ’s first RLUIPA lawsuit against a Minnesota city. A full copy of the DOJ’s Complaint is available here.
Dalton & Tomich will continue to monitor this lawsuit and will be sure to provide updates as the litigation progresses. If you represent a religious institution and believe you experienced similar discriminatory conduct by a local municipality, feel free to contact us to discuss your matter.
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