Community Corner

White-Only Church Approved In Minnesota; Neighbors Aim To Stop It

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the Asatru Folk Assembly is "organized around ethnocentricity and archaic notions of gender."

The Asatru Folk Assembly, a whites-only church that worships ancient Norse gods, purchased the Calvary Lutheran Church building in Murdock, Minnesota, to use as a regional worship center.
The Asatru Folk Assembly, a whites-only church that worships ancient Norse gods, purchased the Calvary Lutheran Church building in Murdock, Minnesota, to use as a regional worship center. (Image via Google Maps)

MURDOCK, MN — Officials in a small Minnesota farming town are defending a decision allowing a group that worships ancient Norse gods to open a whites-only church, saying turning down the request would have exposed the city to a costly First Amendment lawsuit.

The city council in Murdock, a 115-mile drive west of Minneapolis, voted 3-1 last week to approve a conditional use permit that allows the Asatru Folk Assembly to use a former Lutheran church as a regional gathering place for followers of the pre-Christianity faith with origins in northern Europe.

As followers of a religious organization, Asatru Folk Assembly members' speech is protected by the First Amendment, Murdock City Attorney Dan Wilcox said, and that limits the city's purview over what happens at the church to issues such as parking, traffic and noise control.

"I think there's a great deal of sentiment in the town that they don't want that group there," Wilcox told NBC News. "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."

Mayor Craig Kavanagh added: "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."

Asatru Followers Say They're Misunderstood

Asatru, the ancient religion of the Vikings who worshipped Thor and Odin, was the pagan religion of the original settlers of Iceland was abandoned in favor of Christianity in the year 1000, was re-recognized in 1973 and is now Iceland's fastest-growing religion. It's not based on dogma or scripture and, as it has been practiced in Iceland, "is a religion of nature and life, stressing the harmony of the natural world and the search for harmony in the life of individuals," according to Iceland Magazine.

However, not all followers of the Asatru Folk Assembly subscribe to the same beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called the religion a neo-Volkish hate group whose members "are organized around ethnocentricity and archaic notions of gender."

"Some neo-Volkisch groups attempt to cloak their ethnic exclusivity in claims centering on the victimization of white people," the SPLC says, but "other groups overtly promote racial supremacy."

Present-day adherents "also couch their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one's white identity," the group said. "At the cross-section of hypermasculinity and ethnocentricity, this movement seeks to defend against the unfounded threats of the extermination of white people and their children."

In its statement of ethics on its website, the Asatru Folk Assembly states: "We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships. We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own."

Allen Turnage, a board member for the Brownsville, California-based group, told NBC News that it's "just simply not true" that followers aren't white supremacists. Rather, the church and its teachings are open only to people with strictly European bloodlines.

"Just because we respect our culture, that doesn't mean we are denigrating someone else's," Turnage said.

Matt Flavel, the religion's current Alesherjargothi or high priest, told Minnesota Public Rado in October the tenets of the faith are misunderstood and those holding white supremacist views or condoning violence are asked to leave

"Unfortunately, we live in a time where there's a lot of name-calling," he said. "When you say certain things, they scare people. And that's really unfortunate."

"Hate Capital Of Minnesota"

Some of Murdock's 275 residents worry the whites-only religion will tarnish the town's reputation and expose it to extremism and violence.

"There are young children of color across the street from the church," Victoria Guillemard, a Murdock resident and law student, told Minnesota Public Radio News in October, when the group applied for the conditional use permit. "So to have that hateful ideology, especially in a community that might not immediately view this group as extremely dangerous, move into a town … I knew that our local government would not necessarily step up and speak out against it."

About 20 percent of Murdock's 275 residents are from Mexico and Central America, city officials told NBC News.

"We're a welcoming community," Kavanagh, the mayor, told NBC, rejecting the idea that members of the community embrace the beliefs of the Asatru Folk Assembly. "That's not at all what the people of Murdock feel. Nobody had a problem with the Hispanics here."

Murdock's main draw for an Asatru Folk Assembly hof — a temple used for meeting and worship — was the availability of the former Lutheran church "for a very good price," not local demand, Flavel told MPR. However, some members live within a few hours of the Murdock hof, where Flavel expects 20 or 30 people to gather a couple or three times a month.

"We have every intention of being good members of the community, of trying to do charitable outreach," Flavel told the news station.

Residents have vowed to keep a close eye on the Asatru Folk Assembly through groups such as the Murdock Alliance Against Hate, a group that sprang up on Facebook earlier this month.

"Any anger, fear, or resentment about the new reality Murdock faces should be focused towards the future of Murdock," the group said. "The AFA has made this our new reality, and we need to set our sights on how we make it safe and free for the people of Murdock and the surrounding communities."

On Facebook, Kavanagh, urged residents to stand together.

"If you think this decision was a cake walk and you jump to a conclusion that because we approved the CUP zoning, we are racists, you are dead wrong," Kavanagh wrote. "Let's stand together and fight for what we believe in. That is our First Amendment right, take advantage of it. We currently live in a world where we can't agree to disagree anymore. We need to fix that."

Murdock resident Peter Kennedy told the public radio station he doesn't want his hometown to become "known as the hate capital of Minnesota."

He told NBC News he thinks the group "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," Kennedy said.

Not all Murdock residents oppose the church, however.

Jesse James, who has lived in Murdock for about 26 years, wrote on Facebook that he doesn't plan to attend the church, but thinks some people are rushing to judgment against it.

"I find it hypocritical, for lack of a better term, of my community to show much hate towards something they don't understand," he wrote. "I, for one, don't see a problem with it.

"I do not wish to follow in this pagan religion, however, I feel it's important to recognize and support each other's beliefs."

Group Has Presence In 22 States

A petition to the Murdock City Council to stop the all-white church has more than 117,000 signatures. The issue has resonated nationally and internationally.

"You've made international news," Ashley Bishop wrote on the city's Facebook page. "As a fellow Minnesotan, living overseas, shame on you! What kind of mayor allows such hate to worship in his town! Be better. The people of Murdock need to band together and stop these people from brainwashing innocent minds. …"

Facebook user Nick Meldahl wrote on the city's Facebook page that First Amendment rights aren't absolute. He thinks city officials would have been within their rights to reject the application for a conditional use permit.

Outgoing Councilwoman Stephanie Hoff agrees. She cast the lone dissenting vote, telling NBC that she believes the city could have proven municipal harm.

"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," she told the network. "I felt that we had a case with the emotional and mental well being of the city of Murdock."

Several prominent lawyers told NBC the council that instead of focusing the debate on the federal Religious Land Use and institutionalized Persons Act and the First Amendment, the city council could have used its own zoning laws to stop it.

"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," David Schultz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Minnesota, told NBC.

Under Minnesota law focused on forbidding racial discrimination in property transactions, the city also may have been able to prevent the private sale of the property because the group "proposes to exclude people on account of race," Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, told NBC.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Asatru Folk Assembly has groups in 22 U.S. states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

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