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Anti-Muslim billboard posted near St. Cloud taken down

Thursday February 18, 2016

Its message highlighted city's growing frictions.

A sign along Stearns County Road 75 between Waite Park and St. Joseph, shown Tuesday, has created controversy. The sign company says it will come down because the statement is inaccurate.

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A billboard that targeted Catholic Charities for resettling Muslim refugees was taken down Wednesday, just days after it was installed in St. Joseph Township in Stearns County.

The sign, which read “Catholic Charities Resettles Islamists: EVIL or INSANITY?” was apparently paid for by an individual who hired Franklin Outdoor Advertising to post it along a highway a few miles west of St. Cloud, where Somali immigrants have been targeted by anti-Muslim groups.

A spokesman for Catholic Charities in St. Cloud said the office reached out to the advertising firm after an employee spotted the billboard to notify the firm that the office isn’t involved with refugee resettlements. Franklin Outdoor agreed to remove the sign due to the inaccuracy, said Steve Bresnahan, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

“They were very, very responsive and in a matter of a couple of hours they said it would be coming down,” he said.

Bresnahan said his St. Cloud office provides housing for low-income people and runs a variety of programs that assist vulnerable populations in St. Cloud. The group serves people of all faiths, he added, but it has not been involved in resettling refugees in Stearns County.

Still, facing criticism for working with Muslims is “not new for Catholic Charities,” Bresnahan said.

A spokesman for Franklin Outdoor declined Wednesday to identify the person who paid for the billboard. Spokesman Dan Franklin said he viewed the message as a free-speech issue.

“I like to give everyone equal treatment for their beliefs and message regardless of if I believe in them or not,” said Franklin. “We have done billboards for both pro-life and pro-choice, and climate change. Some people find those offensive, but I believe that they have the right under the First Amendment to state their opinions on the topic.”

Franklin said he hasn’t had a customer asking to post any similar messages on billboards recently, and that while his company doesn’t have a written standard for what’s allowed on signs, it prohibits “profanity, nudity, obscenities, lies, etc.”

Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a separate organization from the St. Cloud office, does resettle refugees, including Muslims, said a spokeswoman. The office resettles some 300 refugees a year, primarily from Myanmar and Somalia.

“We offer services to people of all faiths who are resettled here from all over the world,” said spokeswoman Therese Gales.

The message on the St. Joseph Township billboard was posted amid a string of incidents highlighting the frictions between St. Cloud’s growing Somali population and a small number of the city’s longtime residents, 85 percent of whom are white.

The leader of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations spoke to about 500 people last week about fears of Muslims at St. Cloud State University. At a separate event last month, a Coon Rapids doctor and public speaker who says Muslims will inevitably take over the U.S. drew about 100 people for a $15 chicken dinner and talk at a St. Cloud restaurant.


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