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More than 50,000 people have signed an online petition to stop a church that is open only to white people from operating in the town of Murdock, Minnesota.

The Asatru Folk Assembly says its members honor “the Gods under the names given to them by our Germanic/Norse ancestors.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a “neo-Volkisch hate group,” saying its bigotry is rooted in “baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity.” Church board member Allen Turnage denied being part of a white supremacist group, telling NBC News, “Just because we respect our own culture, that doesn’t mean we are denigrating someone else’s.”

The group purchased a building in Murdock that once was used as a Lutheran church, and because it was zoned in a residential area, they asked the city for a conditional use permit to turn the building back into a church. With a vote of 3-1 earlier this month, the Murdock City Council agreed, angering residents.

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Murdock is home to 298 people, and due to an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Latinos make up 20 percent of the population. Resident Peter Kennedy told NBC News he believes the Asatru Folk Assembly “thought they could fly under the radar in a small town like this, but we’d like to keep the pressure on them. Racism is not welcome here.”

Murdock Mayor Crag Kavanagh told NBC News the city attorney “highly advised” that council members grant the permit “for legal reasons to protect the First Amendment rights. We knew that if this was going to be denied, we were going to have a legal battle on our hands that could be pretty expensive.” The dissenting vote came from council member Stephanie Hoff, who said she thinks the city would have won a court battle by making a case for “the emotional and mental wellbeing of the city of Murdock.”

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Municipalities cannot discriminate against placing churches in residential neighborhoods, municipal law expert Brian Egan told NBC News, but Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, said if the council had known about the private property sale, it could have stopped it due to laws against racial discrimination in property transactions. “No institution that proposes to exclude people on account of race is allowed to run an operation in the state of Minnesota,” he explained. Catherine Garcia

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