Asatru Folk Assembly is a small church that will only admit white worshipers, and yet they claim there is nothing racist about them. The city, on its part, argues that it granted the permit to avoid an expensive legal battle, but residents are not letting the issue slide.
Only white people can walk through the church's doors once it opens, which will be in Murdock, Minnesota.
It wants to practice a pre-Christian religion that began in northern Europe.
However, even though the council allowed this permit to be granted, the residents are not comfortable with the unusual decision.
So far, around 50,000 signatures have been collected using an online petition. The goal is to keep the church from establishing itself in the 280-people farming town.
Peter Kennedy, a Murdock resident, explained why the church was unwelcome in their hometown:
"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. Racism is not welcome here."
Asatru Folk Assembly Wishes To Make This A Regional Church
Asatru Folk Assembly bought the church and are working towards turning it into a regional church.
The reason many residents are not excited about this development is that they are supportive of the increasing Latino population.
The Hispanics have moved into the area over the past decades in search of job opportunities. Therefore, the locals don't appreciate that a church that so blatantly excludes them has been set up in the area.
On the city's Facebook page, Jean Lesteberg, a resident of the neighboring town of De Graff, had this to say:
"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."
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Asatru Folk Assembly is a "neo-Volkisch hate group." The institution is also promoting "their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one's white identity."
Given the church's discriminative admission policies, many consider this a white supremacist or separatist group. However, the church members adamantly deny the allegation.
An assembly member, Allen Turnage, claims that they are not racists:
"We're not. It's just simply not true. Just because we respect our own culture, that doesn't mean we are denigrating someone else's."
Members Have To Be From European Bloodlines
The church insists that members can only come from European bloodlines, and it operates out of Brownsville, California.
It is not clear how big of a membership the church enjoys around the world. However, they were in search of a new church in the region of eastern North Dakota when they learned about Murdock.
According to the group's website:
"We do not need salvation. All we need is the freedom to face our destiny with courage and honor. We honor the Gods under the names given to them by our Germanic/Norse ancestors."
When talking about the congregation's forefathers, the website says they 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."
Turnage says that, as a church, they "respect the ways our ancestors viewed the world and approached the universe a thousand years ago."
Those in support of the church in Murdock claim that the community should be open-minded and respectful to everyone.
Jesse James, a 26-year-old who lives in the area, wrote this on Facebook:
"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."
James will certainly not be joining this congregation:
"I do not wish to follow in this pagan religion, however, I feel it's important to recognize and support each other's beliefs."
Attorney Persuaded The Council Members To Grant The Permit
Strangely, even the council members were not in support of the church. However, they had no option but to grant the permit.
They did so in a 3-1 decision. Their attorney persuaded them to give the church a go-ahead, according to the mayor, Craig Kavanagh:
"We were highly advised by our attorney to pass this permit for legal reasons to protect the First Amendment rights. 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."
According to city attorney, Don Wilcox, it was a choice between 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. 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 only dissenting vote was cast by Stephanie Hoff:
"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."
Murdock is known for its corn and soybeans farming. About 20% of the population consists of Latinos working as day laborers.
Kennedy, who does not support the exclusionary beliefs, does not think the church should operate there:
"We're a welcoming community. That's not at all what the people of Murdock feel. Nobody had a problem with the Hispanics here."
Church Initially A Residence
The assembly required a permit to turn the residence into a church. Initially, the property was a Lutheran church before it changed into a private residence.
The controversial decision to give the church permission to operate in this manner has attracted a lot of attention and criticism.
Abigail Suiter finds the whole incident quite ironic:
"It's ironic the city council didn't want to commit discrimination against the church, but the church is discriminating against Blacks. It's very telling of where the priority is and whose lives matter."
Even though the council says they were out of options, a lot of legal experts disagree. David Schultz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota, explained:
"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 because at that point they're not making a decision based upon the viewpoint or content of speech."
Similarly, according to Tribe, a law professor, the council could have relied on laws that rejects operations that exclude people based on race:
"No institution that proposes to exclude people on account of race is allowed to run an operation in the state of Minnesota."
According to the mayor, granting the permit does not mean they are 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. Just because we voted yes doesn't mean we're racist."
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people do not share this sentiment. As far as many people go, the council willingly granted a permit to a racist religious institution.