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Facing a First Amendment fight, a small Minnesota town allows a white supremacist church

The city council in Murdock, Minn., voted Dec. 9 to grant a permit that allows the Asatru Folk Assembly, which has been identified as a white supremacist group, to gather at an abandoned church it bought. (Renee Jones Schneider/AP)
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The nation’s ascendant white supremacy movement and small-town bureaucracy collided in rural Minnesota last week when a city council vote over a zoning permit made the 273-person city of Murdock the latest First Amendment battleground.

The Murdock City Council voted 3-1 during a virtual meeting Wednesday to allow the Asatru Folk Assembly to turn the run-down church it purchased in July into its first “hof,” or gathering place, in the Midwest. The looming presence of the obscure Nordic folk religion, widely classified as a white supremacist hate group by extremism and religious experts, promoted months of pushback from concerned residents.

City leaders, meanwhile, were advised that denying the AFA’s permit could leave Murdock vulnerable to a potentially devastating religious discrimination suit.

Concerns turned to anger following Wednesday’s virtual city council meeting and were exacerbated by the council’s decision to conduct an off camera voice vote with no roll call. Although meeting minutes identified how each member voted and most residents recognized each member by voice, Mayor Craig Kavanagh later apologized that the cameras were shut off.

In a statement following the vote, Kavanagh defended the council as only wanting what’s best for the city and affirmed that “the City of Murdock condemns racism in all its forms: conscious, unconscious, any place, any time, now and in the future.”

Council member James Diederich voted to approve the permit, saying it came down to a constitutional issue. City leaders, he argued, had little recourse because residents were not objecting to how the AFA would use the church property but to the group itself.

“I vote ‘yes,’ not by emotion. I went straight off the findings of facts and on the First Amendment,” Diederich told The Washington Post.

Murdock’s issue underscores the deficiencies with the First Amendment and exposes a lack of neutrality in who it really protects, argued Laura Beth Nielsen, who chairs the Sociology Department at Northwestern University and wrote the 2004 book “License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech.”

“Right now, every local government is broke trying to deal with coronavirus. The idea that you would arguably subject yourself to a costly lawsuit — what town would want to do that?” Nielsen said. “But letting these organizations flourish and take root is scary, especially if you’re the Black or the Jewish family in town.”

She said Murdock’s individual battle is taking place in a broader legal and social environment where, “in the universe of the First Amendment, White people tend to win.”

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Ranging from the White Protestant roots of the Ku Klux Klan to the anti-gay demonstrations of the Westboro Baptist Church, hate groups have long exploited their religious status for First Amendment cover. In recent years, white supremacist groups have started to co-opt obscure folk religions and promulgate hateful views under the guise of ancestral worship.

Adherents often gather informally or blend with other White identity groups, making it hard to gauge the group’s true size, although some estimates place the figure as high as 800 U.S. members. Nielsen noted that even small groups can wield influence and don’t need many members to easily overwhelm city council or school board meetings in a small town.

The AFA has tried to paper over its hate group label by holding food drives and community events. Jennifer Snook, a sociology lecturer at Grinnell College who researches Heathenry, called these efforts a “facade” in an email to The Post. “They are widely perceived as being white supremacists with great PR.”

Ethan Stark, the spokesman for the inclusive Heathenry advocacy group Heathens Against Hate, said the AFA has created modern interpretations of the ancient Nordic faiths to justify its white supremacist views.

“The AFA has fringe beliefs that don’t represent Heathenry or the Asatru religion,” Stark said.

The AFA denies that it’s a hate group but admits that it does not allow anyone not of White, Northern European heritage. Its public statement of ethics includes lines such as: “Activities and behaviors supportive of the [w]hite family should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors destructive of the [w]hite family are to be discouraged.”

Allen Turnage, an attorney for the AFA who purchased the Murdock church on the group’s behalf, did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment, but did not deny those were the group’s beliefs during an town meeting October.

“A hundred thousand years from now, I want there to be blond hair and blue eyes,” Turnage said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I don’t have to be a German shepherd supremacist to want there to be German shepherds.”

Residents such as Christian Duruji, who is Black and has a biracial child, weren’t convinced by Turnage’s response.

“I fail to see how a group that would reject me on sight and view my daughter as an aberration not to be celebrated” could contribute to the well-being of Murdock, he said, according to the Star Tribune.

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Murdock is in a politically red and demographically White part of central Minnesota whose waning population has been buoyed in recent years by a vibrant community of Latino immigrant farmworkers.

Resident Pete Kennedy said the community is close-knit and embraces its growing diversity.

“They’re becoming to be thought of as pretty valued members of the community,” Kennedy said of the newer residents. “So for [the AFA] to be coming in and spouting this crap is just bull----.”

Kennedy joined the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate shortly after the AFA purchased the church in July. “I don’t want Murdock to become known as a place where this is welcome,” he said.

Stephanie Hoff, the lone city council member to vote against the permit last Wednesday, was disappointed when the council did not impose more rigorous conditions for the AFA to comply with, which could have discouraged or at least slowed its progress.

“I firmly came to my decision very quickly when we were talking about the permit and the conditions they would have to meet,” Hoff said.

One member of the anti-hate alliance who declined to be named for privacy reasons said the council should have rejected the AFA’s permit and taken a moral stance.

“Oftentimes, the most critical decisions come from people standing up for what’s right and going through the legal process,” the resident said.

Nielsen, the Northwestern sociologist, noted that cities routinely restrict the First Amendment over issues it prioritizes, such as anti-pandhandling ordinances or obscenity laws.

“Even though the First Amendment is supposed to operate in this neutral way, when you dig in, hate speech against racial minorities is protected; harassment of women is protected,” Nielsen said. “In the big picture, the First Amendment is reinforcing who already has power.”

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