The leaders of a small town in Minnesota have agreed to let a whites-only religious group move into their local church, despite outcry from the small community and tens of thousands online.
Officials in the town of Murdock, Minn., voted earlier this month to let the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) transform an abandoned Lutheran church into a new place of worship. Town leaders voted anonymously on the measure amid fierce public backlash, and insisted that the community does not support racism in any form.
The AFA has been accused of pushing white supremacy, and is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It also explicitly describes itself as a “warrior” religion of “white people” from northern Europe, according to its own website.
AFA board member Allen Turnage has said the church would not admit a Black person “because they’re not of Northern European descent.”
Murdock leaders say they approved a permit for the church in order to avoid a long legal fight over religious liberty.
“Because we’ve approved this permit, all of a sudden everyone feels this town is racist, and that isn’t the case,” Mayor Craig Kavanagh told NBC News. “Just because we voted yes doesn’t mean we’re racist.”
The AFA bought the abandoned church earlier this year and petitioned the town to zone it as a place of worship. The petition sparked backlash from the community of about 280 people, and provoked a petition against it that racked up more than 117,000 signatures.
The group preaches a pre-Christian, polytheistic form of spirituality based on Norse mythology and a Northern European ethnicity.
“Asatru is not, in itself, a racist religion, though some white supremacists consider themselves Asatruists,” the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says on its website. The ADL adds that the group appeals to white supremacists through its “warrior religion” aesthetic, and is also sometimes referred to as Odinism.
Asatru groups that focus on the racial or ethnic elements of the ideology tend to use “folk” or “volkisch” in their name, according to the SPL.
“Present-day Folkish adherents also couch their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity,” the SPL says. “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.”
The group explicitly states that it supports “strong, healthy white family relationships” in its statement of ethics. “We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own,” it says.
Turnage denies that the AFA is a white supremacist group.
“We’re not. It’s just simply not true,” he said. “Just because we respect our own culture, that doesn’t mean we are denigrating someone else’s.”
The AFA’s website says: “Activities and behaviours destructive of the white family are to be discouraged.”
Turnage said the AFA has about 500 members nationwide, and 20 or so in and around Minnesota. It’s based in Brownsville, Calif.
The AFA wants to turn the reclaimed church into a regional gathering point in the U.S. Midwest.
Murdock council members voted 4-1 to approve the group’s permit on Dec. 9, the Star Tribute reports. The votes were cast anonymously during an online meeting.
“We as leaders of the city of Murdock want people to know that we condemn racism in all forms,” Mayor Kavanagh said, before the council approved the accused racist group’s permit.
City Attorney Don Wilcox told council members that they faced possible legal action 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.
“Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean they can’t do it.”
The Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate, which opposes the AFA, has held several protests to denounce the church decision.
“We have a very specific goal in mind and that is to let the Asatru Folk Assembly know just how unwelcome they are in this town,” Victoria Guillemard, a co-founder of the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate, told the West Central Tribune after the permit was approved.
The AFA has a conditional use permit for one year at the church.
Guillemard says her group will continue fighting the permit despite the council’s decision. She’s one of many who have professed their support for the town’s Latino community, which has been growing over the past decade.
“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,” Peter Kennedy, a longtime Murdock resident, told NBC News.
“Racism is not welcome here.”
— With files from The Associated Press
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