See more of the story

St. Anthony City Council members on Tuesday rejected plans to locate an Islamic center in the basement of the former Medtronic headquarters off Old Hwy. 8.

The proposed Abu-Huraira Islamic Center had been on hold for months after some residents objected to the center and city leaders studied whether city zoning would support the facility.

About 150 people attended Tuesday's council meeting, where Muslim proponents asked the council to approve the nearly 15,000-square-foot center, which would be used for worship and assembly by the congregation of about 200.

"I'm a proud American. This is home. The center will serve the needs of our community," Sadik Warfa said.

"I know this issue is very emotional for some people. We are a melting pot. We are all Americans."

Close to a dozen St. Anthony residents asked the council to deny the proposal, which they argued would reduce tax revenues, an argument Mayor Jerry Faust denied. Others contended the center would attract increased traffic in the neighborhood and create problems for those living nearby.

Some who spoke against the center made disparaging comments about the Muslim faith, although Faust tried to discourage such remarks.

"Islam is evil. There's no other religion in the world that endorses violence," said John Murlowski, before Faust cut him off.

Supporters of the center expressed disappointment following the 4-1 decision.

Ali Garushi, a spokesman for the Islamic center, said Muslim leaders will convene in the coming days and will consider filing suit to challenge the council's action.

"It's discrimination against Muslims," Garushi said. "This is a dirty war they've been doing."

Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the decision "sends a message they [St. Anthony leaders] don't support freedom of religion and they don't support individuals' rights to build a place of worship."

She said her group plans to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, noting that the department has launched an investigation into 28 cases nationwide involving local denials of mosque construction applications.

"I think they [St. Anthony city officials] have to admit how this looks," Saroya said. "Right when the community starts making noise in opposition to the center that's when they took a step back. So I think it's fair for the [Muslim] community to react this way and to think there's something more going on than just land use issues."

The four council members who voted against the Islamic center said the city has not discriminated against the Muslim group and that the project has always been about land use and zoning.

"A church is just an incompatible use in this [light industrial] zoning district," said Council Member Randy Stille, who voted against the center. "It pains me to vote against so passionate a cause, but, again, it's a land use issue and always has been."

Jim Roth, the only council member to vote in favor of the proposed center, said denying the project would "potentially open St. Anthony ... to lawsuits."

"I think in the end it will cost taxpayers," said Roth, adding that he was "embarrassed" and "stunned" by the disparaging remarks some residents made about Islam during the meeting.

Supporters of the center say they worked for months with city officials, who had originally told them the proposed use for the space was acceptable.

But in March, just before the center went before the Planning Commission, the city delayed the project and said it needed more time to study its zoning code.

When the Planning Commission approved of the proposed center last week, Muslim leaders were encouraged that the center also might win the council's approval.

Before the meeting on Tuesday, Saroya said she was hopeful the council would approve the project.

In addition to St. Anthony, other proposed mosques and Islamic centers have met opposition in Plymouth, Bloomington and Willmar, Minn., but governments ultimately approved them, Saroya said.

"Any time a new [Muslim] community moves in, there is that transition period. We find the people in Minnesota are pretty open and welcoming, and it doesn't become a big deal."

Rose French • 612-673-4352