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Rutherford Institute Files Religious Discrimination Lawsuit Against Planning Board for Denying Permit for Spiritual Retreat Center

INDEPENDENCE, Va. -- The Rutherford Institute has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors of Grayson County, Virginia, charging that they discriminated against a local resident when they refused to allow her to develop privately-owned land near the New River for a spiritual retreat center. The complaint alleges that Grayson County officials deprived Laura George, president of The Oracle Institute, of her rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and equal protection of the law in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.

A copy of The Rutherford Institute's complaint in The Oracle Institute et al. v. Bd. of Supervisors of Grayson County is available here.

"The Oracle Institute has a right to be treated fairly and without discrimination and in the same manner as other religious institutions," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "While the Constitution assures the right of religious freedom, Congress recognized the need for further safeguards, especially in relation to zoning issues, and passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Hopefully, Grayson County officials will recognize the error of their ways in this matter and act in accordance with federal law."

The Oracle Institute is an educational charity dedicated to promoting spiritual enlightenment through study of the scriptures and the teachings of the world's religions. Oracle's founder, Laura George, submitted an application to the Grayson County Planning Commission for a zoning permit to allow Oracle to establish a retreat center on privately-owned property near the New River in Grayson County. George intended for the proposed retreat center to serve as a meeting place for spiritual development and meditation. The retreat center would also offer recreational activities, such as camping, kayaking and hiking; community classes, such as environmental protection and sustainability, spirituality and religion, and culture and the arts; nature retreats; and a community library.

On May 18, 2010, the Commission unanimously approved the application and referred it to the Board of Supervisors for final approval pending a public hearing. According to the complaint, approximately 175 people attended the June 10 hearing. Of these, more than a dozen local ministers and 25 of their parishioners made statements urging the Board of Supervisors to deny Oracle's application because of the group's religious beliefs.

Specifically, the pastors urged the Board not to allow Oracle to locate in the community because Oracle's inter-faith beliefs and philosophy do not mesh with the Christian beliefs of their community. One speaker allegedly warned that if the Board approved the permit application, this would be the last term for its members. Thereafter, the Board voted unanimously to deny the application, citing "public health and safety" reasons and concerns about damage to the view shed of the New River.

However, as Rutherford Institute attorneys point out in their complaint, the Board approved plans in 2007 for a state prison, including a bridge over the river, to be built in that view shed. Two years later, in 2009, the Board approved plans for a 150-unit trailer park community for retired Christians to be built along the river.

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