Can a city refuse to establish a church within its borders? – FindLaw


Wooden cross on an old church steeple lit by the rising sun.  Some copy space.

It appears that no one in Murdock, Minnesota has any interest in letting a church called Asatru Folk Assembly open its doors in their city.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks things like this, the Asatru Folk Association is a whites group. Although Murdoch (265 people) is located in the middle of the red countryside of America and has a population of 95% white, its residents made it clear that a racially extremist church is not welcome there.

However, on December 9, Murdock City Council voted 3-1 to allow the Asatru Folks to transform an abandoned Lutheran church into its own regional gathering place.

why? Because, as city attorney Don Wilcox He explained to the board Before the vote, “There are some constitutional protections that apply to religions. I have not seen any evidence to overcome the assumption that they are a religion whether you agree with it or not. “

Looking for First Amendment cover

Asatru People’s Association, created in 1995 by Stephen McNalenAnd the Claims on its website Its purpose is to return to the “ancestral religion” before Christianity, which is restricted to white people. “We believe that supportive white family activities and behaviors should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors that are destructive to the white family should be discouraged.”

The white supremacist groups that claim to have links to religion are nothing new, of course, because by claiming religious roots they get the cover of the First Amendment. One example is Westboro Baptist Church, which is deeply anti-gay. In the early 20th century, at least, the Ku Klux Klan emphasized its Protestant roots for this.

But groups like Asatru Folk Assembly are a new kind, according to Washington Post. The newspaper said: “In recent years, white supremacist groups have started to do so Selection of mysterious popular religions It publishes hateful opinions under the guise of ancestral worship. “

At Murdock, it is not just a matter of division

For Murdoch, the legal dispute centers around the fact that Asatru Folk Assembly bought an abandoned Lutheran church earlier in 2020 for $ 45,000. Since this site was already intended for church use, the city had little legal space to refuse the permit.

At least that’s what city attorney Wilcox says. “There is no compelling interest in preserving this building from use for meetings. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” the Minneapolis Tribune quoted him as telling the board.

Murdock Mayor Craig Kavanagh noted in prof Facebook share That there was a second legal reason for the city council to vote as it did: fear that denying the permit would have resulted in a lawsuit that the city could not afford under the First Amendment.

He wrote, “Murdock City Council has strongly advised by various legal sources not to refuse the permit as circumstances may (a) be too burdensome.”

After the citizens of Murdock learned of the purchase of the church and the group intending to meet there, many became furious. Soon, a group launches itself Murdoch Zone Alliance Against Hate They started holding meetings and organizing protests. The group undertakes to continue telling the Asatru Folk Association that they are not welcome in their town.

What is the opinion of the law?

But can’t all of this be avoided? Should the municipality be hostage to First Amendment claims by a group that simply claims to be religious?

For starters, it is not difficult to claim church status. The Internal Revenue Service It lists the requirements necessary to be a legitimate (and tax-exempt) church, which are not onerous.

If you want to establish a church, you need to show that you have a set of things, including a distinct legal existence, doctrine of sorts, distinct religious history, place of worship, appointed ministers or commissioners, and organized worship. (In 2015, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver explained how easy it is to create content His church is tax-exempt, “Our Lady of Eternal Exemption.”)

When it comes to land use and zoning laws as they apply to churches, the best way to understand these laws is to look at a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Founders Act (RLUIPA). This law, passed by Congress in 2000, gives churches discretion to avoid zoning law restrictions on the use of their property.

Its primary aim is the “general rule” of the Basic Law, which states that “(the government shall not) impose or implement the regulation of land use in a manner that imposes a significant burden on the religious practice of any person, including the community or institution” unless the government can Proving that she has a very good reason to do so.

The Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice provides a Helpful explanation On what RLUIPA does and does not do. It gives the impression that religious institutions do indeed have great leverage when dealing with zoning restrictions.

In any case, the issue of zoning in Murdock seems clear: the city has already accepted the property in question for religious use. This means that if the city wanted to contest the Asatru Folk Assembly, it would be a First Amendment battle. And as the city mayor noted in his Facebook post, several lawyers told him this was a bad idea.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder why the church chooses to worship in an atmosphere in which it is unwelcome – and perhaps even loathed. But the Asatru grassroots association seems not to mind.

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