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A whites-only religious sect has hopes of expanding its presence in the Midwest, and decided that a tiny farming community with a population of 292 people is the right spot to do just that.
On Wednesday, the city council of Murdock, Minnesota, located about 115 miles from Minneapolis, voted 3-1 in favor of granting the Asatru Folk Assembly a permit to use an old Lutheran church as a place of worship. The group purchased the abandoned church for $45,000 earlier this year, the Star Tribune reported.
Asatru Folk Assembly says it’s a religion drawn on pre-Christian European spiritual traditions, and is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit religious organization. Their core messages of ethnic purity and white nationalism are thinly cloaked with language like “preservation of heritage” and “European ethnicity.” They insist they’re not racist, but explicitly state that maintaining whiteness is a guiding principle.
“We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships,” they write in their statement of ethics. “We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own.”
Asatru Folk Assembly’s plans for the town of Murdock, which is 99 percent white, have sparked a backlash in the small community, the Star Tribune reported. After the group bought the church, locals formed one of their own, “Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate.” A group of protesters rallied near the church on Wednesday ahead of the City Council vote, which was conducted virtually via Zoom.
Murdock’s Mayor began the meeting by reading a statement on behalf of the city condemning racism in all forms, Minneapolis Public Radio reported.
“Yesterday was a devastating and difficult day for Murdock,” Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate later posted on Facebook. “Residents no longer feel safe with the presence of the Asatru Folk Assembly in their community.”
About 50 local protesters—about a fifth of the town’s population—also showed up to a public hearing before the city council on October 14 to express their opposition to the Asatru Folk Assembly.
At that October meeting, Asatru Folk Assembly board member and Florida attorney Allen Turnage responded to questions from members of the community. He said that Black people aren’t allowed to join the group “because they’re not of northern European descent,” the Tribune reported.
The Asatru Folk Assembly says it has communities in at least 16 states, plus Ireland, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, Italy, and Norway. It currently has two “hofs”—meaning gathering halls—in the U.S., one in California and the other in North Carolina, according to their website. They acquired the church in Linden, North Carolina, in April of this year. If the Murdock City Council votes in favor of allowing the Asatru Folk Assembly to use the church as their place of worship, the small Minneapolis community will become home to their third hof.
The group was established in 1994 in Grass Valley, California, by Stephen McNallen, a leading figure in the modern paganism movement. While Asatru is a long and complicated religious tradition that is not racist in and of itself, its application in modern America has centered on ideas of white racial purity. In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designated the Asatru Folk Assembly as a hate group, stating that it fell under the category of “Neo-Volkish” ideologies, which co-opt existing spiritual traditions and turn them into vehicles for promoting white supremacy or pro-white conspiracy theories.
“Present-day Folkish adherents also couch their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity,” the SPLC writes. “At the cross-section of hypermasculinity and ethnocentricity, this movement seeks to defend against the unfounded threats of the extermination of white people and their children.”
Last December, the National Guard expelled two of its own members after Atlanta Antifascists exposed them as adherents of Asatru Folk Assembly who had attended an event held by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Asatru Folk Assembly did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.
Editor’s note 12/10/2020 10:09 a.m. ET: This story was updated after the city council’s vote.