Maria Barron came to rural Minnesota from Mexico 10 years ago so her husband could work on a nearby dairy farm.
They quickly loved the pastoral fields of Murdock, a town of less than 300 people. They joined a Roman Catholic church and felt safe when their children, 12 and 14, played outside with children from Mexican and Central American families who settled nearby.
But in December, that sense of security collapsed when the mayor of Murdock and city council gave an organization for “European ethnicities” known to exclude anyone who is not white a permit to open a church. on Main Avenue, about four blocks from Mrs. Barron’s Church.
The group, the Asatru Folk Assembly, which describes itself as centered on “indigenous and pre-Christian spirituality,” has been identified as a white supremacist hate group by other pagan believers and organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The 3-1 vote in December to approve a permit for the group made Murdock, best known for soybeans, corn and its proximity to huge dairy farms, the subject of intense national attention.
The decision alarmed many locals, especially residents of color who until recently lived comfortably in the predominantly white city. Ms Barron said she and other mothers have discussed taking turns watching their children when they play outside. When the elementary school asked Latin American families to participate in a video production, Ms. Barron said, many refused.
“I don’t feel threatened at the moment. But I’m worried, ”she said. “What worries me is losing our sense of peace.”
Many locals fear that similar groups are trying to “grab some sort of hold here because they think it’s a safe haven where they can come and foment this hatred,” said Pete Kennedy, 59, engineer who has lived in the city for about 50 years. years.
City leaders insisted they had no choice but to grant a conditional use permit, or CUP, due to legal protections that prohibit governments from using regulations on the city. use of land to impose a substantial burden on people trying to practice their religion.
The approval “was strictly a matter of zoning that Council felt it had to legally follow,” Mayor Craig Kavanagh said in a statement to residents last month.
He added, “If you think this decision was a cinch and jump to the conclusion that because we approved CUP zoning we are racist, you are dead wrong.
Allen Turnage, a member of the Asatru People’s Congress who attended the city hearings, did not respond to messages seeking comment. The group has around 500 members across the country, said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit known for its analyzes of hate groups.
According to its website, the Assembly believes that “these activities and behaviors favorable to the white family must be encouraged while these destructive activities and behaviors of the white family must be discouraged”.
The Anti-Defamation League called the Assembly an “extremist group”. In 2015, the FBI ended a plot to bomb or shoot Jewish synagogues and black churches by two men who subscribed to “an extremist white supremacist version of the Asatru faith,” an agent wrote in a report. federal affidavit. It is one of many like-minded groups that adopted imagery from the Vikings, Norse mythology, and medieval Europe.
Although the group may be small, Ms. Brooks said, “This worries us as it continues to advance the desire of white nationalists to create a white ethno-state.” Such groups sometimes settle in predominantly white communities because they believe it will help them recruit more members, she said.
Mr. Turnage told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis that the assembly was “specifically a religion of Northern Europe, and that’s it”.
“We believe our faith is worthy of honor and respect like everyone else’s,” he said.
Such explanations hide other intentions, said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University in Maryland.
“They try to act like we don’t recognize racism when we see it and when we hear it,” she says. “The explanation that ‘we want to get involved and protect our heritage’ – this is just an update on the language that was used to create Jim Crow.”
The group said no more than 20 to 30 members would be in the building, a former wooden Lutheran church, said Donald Wilcox, the town’s lawyer.
In June, it was sold to the assembly for $ 45,000, according to county records. People have since been seen clearing the brush and repair the building. None of the members live in Murdock, according to city officials.
Mr Wilcox said residents have made it clear – through letters and protests – that they do not want the group to open a church.
The question for the Council, however, was whether the group was a legitimate religion with the protected right to use the building.
“We came to the decision that there was no sufficient evidence to say they weren’t,” Wilcox said. The church has yet to open and the group has yet to meet with the city’s building inspector, he said.
The city could have refused the permit on the grounds that it had a compelling interest in outlawing racial discrimination, said Timothy Zick, professor at William & Mary Law School. But it would have been a tough fight, he said.
The group could have argued that it was protected by the same federal law that protects Muslims or Jews from discrimination from municipalities that would prevent them from opening a mosque or synagogue, he said.
City Councilor James Diederich, who voted to approve the permit, said he did not want the city to be embroiled in a protracted legal battle. He said that before the vote, residents told him they opposed the organization’s presence. Others have left letters on his doorstep.
“Some nice and some not,” Diederich said. “All anonymous.”
At a nearby church, the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, Reverend Jeremy Kucera said last month his assistant called the police after finding a rude message on the church’s voicemail. Apparently, the appellant had confused the church with the assembly.
“I hope someone shoots your church,” the caller said, according to a recording of the message.
Opponents of the Assembly plan to disseminate information about his beliefs and prevent him from recruiting, said Victoria Guillemard, a student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, who lives in Murdock and formed the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate.
Christian Duruji, a black lawyer who lives in Pennock, a town about 12 miles away, said he was comforted last fall when dozens of residents challenged Mr Turnage in a public hearing.
He attended the reunion with his wife, who grew up in Murdock and joined Ms. Guillemard’s group. The couple often visit Murdock to visit their 2-year-old daughter’s grandparents.
“The fact that this tiny tiny town in the back pocket of Minnesota came out and spoke out against racism – that was really encouraging for me,” Mr. Duruji said.
Mr Diederich, the city councilor, said he expected residents to closely monitor any permit violations and report them promptly.
“Until then,” he said, “we’ll watch and wait and see.”