Plans by a little-known whites-only church to open in a small Midwestern town drew sharp opposition Wednesday from residents, who don't want their community known as "the hate capital of Minnesota."
Nearly 50 residents of Murdock filed into a town hall to largely voice opposition to the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) which wants to establish its Midwest regional center in the western Minnesota city that's home to less than 300 people.
The AFA, based inBrownsville, California, calls its teachings an "expression of the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Europe."
And on its website's "Declaration of Purpose," the church says teachings and membership are for those of strictly European bloodlines, saying, "Let us be clear: By European folks, we mean white people."
Lifelong Murdock resident Pete Kennedy told lawmakers and neighbors on Wednesday that if AFA is allowed into town, the community would be known as "the hate capital of Minnesota."
Kennedy told NBC News on Thursday that he fears other discriminatory groups could follow AFA into town and permanently tarnish Murdock's reputation.
"These kinds of things get a life of their own. 'Hey this group was allowed into Murdock' and then everyone else piles on," Kennedy, 59, said. "We want to nip this in the bud."
The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded the Asatru Folk Assembly as a "neo-Volkisch hate group" that couches "their bigotry in baseless claims of bloodlines grounding the superiority of one’s white identity."
Florida attorney Allen Turnage, who spoke on behalf of the group on Wednesday in Minnesota, said his church is being victimized by "lies" spread "by those with an agenda."
"The main lie is that we are a hate group," Turnage said in a statement to NBC News on Thursday. "We do not hate anyone."
Turnage is listed as the group's "lawspeaker" and a member of church leader Matthew Flavel's cabinet, "our own group of Wise Men" known as the "Witan." Turnage insisted the church's refusal to accept non-whites is not a racist practice.
"If I say 'I love my mother,' that says nothing about anyone else," Turnage said, adding that its religious services are meant to "honor our gods, venerate our ancestors and preserve our traditions."
The AFA this past summer purchased an abandoned Lutheran church in Murdock, about 110 miles west of Minneapolis, and is seeking a conditional use permit to operate.
The neighborhood of the site is zoned strictly for residential use. The Lutheran church had been operating under grandfathered exemption because it was around long before town zoning regulations were drawn, City Clerk Kim Diederich said.
But once the church disbanded, anyone seeking to use 700 Main Ave. for anything but a residence would need a conditional use permit from the City Council, according to Diederich.
The council is expected to vote on the matter on Nov. 4.
Retired elementary school teacher Karen Falk attended Wednesday's meeting with a hand-painted sign reading "Life is too short to hate."
If the church was allowed to take root in Murdock, Falk said outsiders would believe her town "isn't a welcoming community that people would want to seek out."
"I am hopeful they will be denied," Falk said Thursday. "And if it's not denied, at least have very strict conditions placed on the conditional use permit."
Turnage said he's confident about the Nov. 4 council vote.
"There was no opposition from anyone who has actually met us," he said.