Voting anonymously, the Murdock, Minn., City Council granted a permit allowing a white supremacist church to use an abandoned Lutheran church as its third gathering spot in the United States.
The vote Wednesday night came after the council was advised that rejecting the Asatru Folk Assembly's request could violate its religious rights.
Meeting online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the council kept its video camera turned off, meaning that other meeting attendees couldn't see the members' faces. Despite repeated requests from the online audience, council members refused to identify who voted for or against the permit, passing it on a voice vote without a roll call. One member on the five-person council could be heard voting no.
"We as leaders of the city of Murdock want people to know that we condemn racism in all forms," Mayor Craig Kavanagh said before the council voted in favor of an organization that religious scholars have identified as a white supremacist group.
Before the vote, council members heard from Don Wilcox, the city attorney, who told them that they faced possible legal jeopardy if they voted against the AFA based on its beliefs.
"There are certain constitutional protections that apply to religions," Wilcox said. "I haven't seen any evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption that they are a religion, whether you agree with it or not.
"There's not a compelling interest in keeping that building from being used for meetings," he added. "Just because you don't like it doesn't mean they can't do it."
The AFA is among a growing number of groups that seek to practice a pre-Christian, European spirituality. The AFA is unabashedly pro-white, according to statements on its website.
"We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships," according to the group's statement of ethics. "We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own.
"We believe that those activities and behaviors supportive of the white family should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors destructive of the white family are to be discouraged."
Scholars who study pagan religions have identified the AFA as a racist fringe group, said Holli Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary in South Carolina, a seminary for pagan and Earth-based spiritualities.
"They hold white supremacist beliefs," Emore said. "It is widely accepted."
At a previous council meeting in October, AFA national Board Member Allen Turnage, an attorney who lives in Florida, defended the group's beliefs under aggressive questioning from community members who urged officials not to allow the group in town.
"We happen to believe that Asatru is specifically a northern European religion, and that's it," Turnage said. "We think our faith is worthy of honor and respect like anyone else's."
Turnage said the AFA would not admit a Black person "because they're not of northern European descent."
The group's arrival sparked a wave of activism in this Swift County farming community along Hwy. 12 about 115 miles west of the Twin Cities. After the AFA purchased the church earlier this year for $45,000, area residents formed a group called the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate and have held several protests against the group, including one Wednesday night.
Victoria Guillemard, a co-founder of the group, said after the vote that she and others will be working to educate the broader community about the AFA and what it stands for, "so that if the AFA approaches people and tries to do any recruiting, people are prepared and are aware of what kind of group they are."
Several heathen leaders from the Twin Cities dialed into the meeting and later issued a statement denouncing the AFA. Heathens practice a form of pre-Christian religion typically modeled on Nordic or Germanic beliefs, worshiping multiple gods.
"The AFA represents an extremist faction within Heathenry," it read. "As longtime heathen leaders in the Twin Cities, we stand in solidarity with and share the concerns of the residents of Murdock. Our beliefs and practices are inclusive and do not support a racialized version of heathen beliefs." It was signed by Todd McCoy of St. Anthony, Sara Axtell of St. Paul and Val Miller of Brooklyn Center.
A statement also came from Heathens Against Hate, an outreach group of the Troth, an international heathen organization.
"We will continue to stand in solidarity with and seek ways to help the city of Murdock against this hate group and the AFA's exploitation of local communities," said the statement from spokesman Ethan Stark.
"Heathens Against Hate stand against the hate and extremism espoused by the AFA and their supporters. We support inclusive Heathenry, where we welcome all who welcome all."