On The Front Lines
VICTORY: Grayson County Board of Supervisors Green-Lights Development of Spiritual Retreat Center in Response to Rutherford Institute Lawsuit
INDEPENDENCE, Va. — In response to a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute, the Grayson County Board of Supervisors has finally agreed to allow a spiritual retreat center to be built on privately-owned land near the New River. The Board initially denied The Oracle Institute’s request for a Special Use Permit in June 2010, allegedly due to public animosity regarding Oracle’s promotion of inter-faith beliefs. In granting the permit after a public hearing on December 13, 2011, the Board paves the way for a final settlement of the lawsuit.
“This is a victory for religious freedom,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “The Oracle Institute has a right to be treated fairly and without discrimination and in the same manner as other religious institutions.”
The Oracle Institute is an educational charity dedicated to promoting spiritual enlightenment through study of the scriptures and 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. Approximately 175 people reportedly attended the June 10 hearing. Of these, more than a dozen local ministers and 25 of their parishioners allegedly 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, the Board had 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.
In filing suit against the County in Oracle’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys charged that the County and its officials deprived Oracle and George of their 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. In April 2011, Judge Brett Geisler denied a motion by the County to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to proceed to trial claims. Affiliate attorney Jack Donohue of Richmond, Virginia, is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.