MURDOCK — City Council members in Murdock at their meeting Wednesday approved a conditional use permit and conditions for it, allowing the Asatru Folk Assembly to use the building it purchased as a church.
Council members voted 3-1 on motions for the two actions, with council member Stephanie Hoff casting the lone no vote. It was not clear from the audio of the virtual meeting who else voted.
The Asatru Folk Assembly purchased and rehabilitated a former Lutheran church building located along U.S. Highway 12 in Murdock. The group learned after the purchase that the building had been previously rezoned for residential use.
The building is intended to serve as the third “hof,” or place of worship, for the Asatru Folk Assembly, which is designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The assembly also owns property in North Carolina and California.
Murdock Mayor Craig Kavanagh opened the meeting Wednesday by taking note that the issue was “pretty controversial.” He emphasized that council members had to consider it as a zoning matter and not on how council members might feel about the group. He said the city of Murdock “condemns racism in all forms.”
City Attorney Don Wilcox told council members that he found no evidence that the Asatru Folk Assembly’s use of the building would violate the city’s conditional use permit standards.
The virtual meeting was conducted via video software. No one on the council had an active video feed. Only audio was available on a black screen, and there was no on-screen indication of who was speaking. Several public viewers of the meeting commented in a chat feed that they could not hear well and did not know who was speaking or who was voting.
The resolution approved by the council found that "establishment, maintenance or operation of the conditional use will not be detrimental to or endanger the public health, safety, morals or comfort. The concerns raised by the public did not relate directly to the use by AFA of the property. Rather they related to the presence of AFA in the community regardless of location."
Wilcox pointed out that the group has improved a building that had fallen into repair, and is making ongoing repairs. The resolution by council members acknowledges concerns that the AFA is a hate group, but states that the group refutes those allegations.
While Wilcox noted the group is considered by many to be a white supremacist organization, it is a nonprofit, religious organization. The attorney said zoning cannot be used to place a burden on the exercise of religious expression.
The Asatru Folk Assembly has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of their whites-only belief system and current and former leaders espousing racist ideology.
About two dozen people gathered earlier Wednesday along U.S. Highway 12 in protest of the group setting up roots in Murdock, a town of less than 300.
One of the protestors, Ben Kowalskygrahek, of St. Paul, said he came out because he wanted to make clear the Asatru Folk Assembly does not represent other heathens.
"I think the AFA appropriates or uses pagan rituals, gods and goddesses as a veneer of spirituality over white nationalism," said Kowalskygrahek, who identified as a pagan.
The protest was spearheaded by the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate, and members said they plan to keep pressing for the group's removal in response to the vote.
Victoria Guillemard, organizer for Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate, said they were protesting Wednesday to support the town's City Council and wanted the council to deny the conditional use permit to the Asatru Folk Assembly.
"We want them to make the correct decision," said Guillemard, a law student who lives in Murdock, prior to the council's vote.
Guillemard said that if the town grants the permit, it will have to be renewed every year. The council did later approve a one-year permit, renewable each year.
"That means we have an entire year to gather evidence of how (the AFA) harms the Murdock community," Guillemard said.
“We don’t want to be known as the hate capital of Minnesota,” resident Pete Kennedy told council members at the October public hearing.
An estimated 50 people, including news reporters from the area and the Twin Cities, attended the earlier hearing. A majority of those who spoke voiced objections to a permit.
“This is certainly not the kind of attention we want and not the kind of attention you want,” Allen Turnage, a member of the board of governors for the Asatru Folk Assembly, told council members at the hearing’s start. “We assure you we are good neighbors,” the Tallahassee, Florida, resident said as the group's representative. “We are a traditional, family-oriented faith and we believe in being good neighbors.”