Legal counsel says county likely would have lost in court
On advice of its legal counsel, the Chisago County Board of Commissioners during a special meeting March 15 approved a conditional use permit that allows the establishment of an Islamic cemetery on a parcel of land in the 20000 block of Lofton Avenue in south Chisago Lake Township.
The decision was a reconsideration of the board’s 3-2 Dec. 21, 2016, vote to deny the permit application by Enes Gluhic, representing the Islamic Community of Bosniaks of Minnesota.
At that time, Commissioners George McMahon, Lora Walker and Rick Greene voted in opposition of the application, with Commissioners Mike Robinson and Ben Montzka voting in favor.
The reconsideration decision passed 4-0, with Commissioner Lora Walker absent.
The county’s legal counsel, Paul Reuvers, explained to the board that if it did not approve the permit, it would likely be in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“It was signed into law Sept. 22, 2000,” he said. “Its passage at that time was unanimous, by the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was supported universally by democrats and republicans. The act provides broad protection for religious organizations and land use regulations, among other things. In other words, it has some real teeth in it for land use decisions that may implicate religion.”
Prior to the vote, Reuvers said if the board didn’t approve the application, he had “no doubt” that the county would face an RLUIPA claim by the applicant and possibly a second claim brought by the federal government.
“Based on my experience and knowledge of the law, and just the record here, I believe the county is going to lose that litigation,” he warned the board.
He went on to explain that the U.S. Department of Justice had launched an investigation into the denial of the permit, and had the county went to court and lost, the possible monetary damages, plus attorneys’ fees, that might have been awarded to the applicant would have been paid for directly by taxpayers in Chisago County.
“There is no insurance coverage for any Department of Justice inquiry,” he said.
Reuvers noted that with the approval of the cemetery application, the applicant would not file a claim and would support the federal government closing its investigation.
He also said the applicant is agreeable to all 13 conditions in the permit, which include stipulations about the size of the cemetery (2 acres on a 16-acre parcel), landscaping, maintenance of the property, parking and green burial practices.
The county had a prepared statement in regard to the reversal decision, which was read aloud by Chisago County Administrator Bruce Messelt at the meeting.
In the statement, it was noted that land use decisions are some of most difficult ones that units of government face.
“While the County Board believed it had made a proper land use decision at the time — and one that it believed was neutral 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,” Messelt read.
Messelt ended the page-long statement by welcoming Gluhic and the Bosniak community to Chisago County.
Montzka thanked everyone who has spent time working on the application and responding to inquiries from various organizations.
“I am convinced that each (board) member tried to follow the law to the best of their ability to make the right decision, based on all of the factors,” he said.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the group representing Gluhic and the Islamic Community of Bosniaks of Minnesota in this matter, was present for the meeting and commented about the reversal decision.
“We’re very thankful for the reversal,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the community having the ability to move on and bury their loved ones here in Chisago County.”