Facing a First Amendment Fight, a Small Minnesota Town Allows a White Supremacist ChurchBreaking News
tags: religion, First Amendment, White Supremacy
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.
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.”
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.
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