Under threat of suit and investigation, Chisago County approves Muslim cemetery

This little Muslim congregation in cramped northeast Minneapolis never expected the difficulties it would face trying to build a cemetery in Chisago County.

This little Muslim congregation in cramped northeast Minneapolis never expected the difficulties it would face trying to build a cemetery in Chisago County.

The Islamic Community of Bosniaks, a Muslim congregation with a mosque in northeast Minneapolis, bought a piece of farmland in spacious Chisago County to build a cemetery to lay members to rest.

They were met by fierce opposition from residents, who complained about the cemetery being an eyesore and polluting the groundwater.

Underlying the criticism was a clear bigotry against Muslims, which City Pages uncovered through a data request for residents' correspondence with county commissioners.

"I've heard a little about the Muslim cemetery proposal you guys are acting on. I have huge concerns about it in a big way," said Bob Streater of North Branch in a voicemail.

"I'm aware that they're probably threatening to sue. I do believe we'll have a new administration in the federal government soon that will maybe look out more for the regular people who have been here and maybe the thuggery of using the law in a way it really wasn't intended to be used will maybe go away. So I hope that you guys will stick up for the people here who have been here."

In one email sent to all five commissioners, Gregory Fredlund wrote, "Don't give members of the Bosniak group a convenient reason to drive through our towns, scout our schools, map out our churches, and see where we gather."

On December 21, 2016, Chisago County commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the cemetery. Lora Walker, Rick Greene, and George McMahon voted against it, while Ben Montzka and Mike Robinson voted for it.

Certain that the decision was influenced by Islamophobic sentiments, the Islamic Community of Bosniaks sued, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked for a Department of Justice investigation into whether the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"We did not file for any damages," says Enes Gluhic, who applied for the cemetery on behalf of his congregation. "We're not trying to be a burden to the area. We just want somebody else, outside of the community, to look at the decision they came up with and the reasons they denied it, and if they're of the same opinion, we'll just accept that as the final answer and we'll move on."

Even if the Department of Justice finds that discrimination did occur, Gluhic says the Islamic Community of Bosniaks would not ask for punitive damages. They just couldn't abide swallowing the county's denial without a fight.

"If there was discrimination, we didn't want to stand by idly and let somebody else deal with the problem," he says. "It needs to be brought to light that we can't have discrimination in this day and age. We should be better than that. I came from a war-torn country, and I've seen what discrimination can do, and I don't want my kids to have to deal with that down the road."

Wednesday afternoon, Chisago County commissioners held a special meeting revisiting the cemetery. Absent was Commissioner Lora Walker, who is recovering in the hospital from a car crash on Saturday.

They ultimately decided, unanimously, to approve a land use permit for the cemetery.
County administrator Bruce Messelt explained in a statement:

While the County Board believed it had made a proper land use decision at the time -- and one that it believed was neutral as to any religious bias, several parties involved, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the applicant, believe the County Board's December decision may have violated both state statute and federal law.

As of this writing, Chisago County is under investigation by the United States Department of Justice regarding potential violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act. Moreover, the County has already been sued once by the applicant in state court and anticipates additional lawsuits will follow. Additionally, the County has had to respond to extensive requests for data relating to this decision under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

It is clear that, even if the County's decision is ultimately upheld, extensive litigation regarding this issue would be both time consuming and expensive, and would significantly detract the County from its many other important goals and objectives.

Therefore, in the best interest of the County, its residents and its businesses, and after extensive consultation with the County Attorney's Office, outside legal counsel who practice land use and civil rights law, and the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust, the County has elected to reconsider its original denial of December 21, 2016 of the conditional use permit application made by Mr. Enes Gluhic.

"We are thankful that, together with the Bosniak community, we are able to put this issue behind us. I welcome our new neighbors to Chisago County," says Board Chairperson Ben Montzka.