July 9, 2011

Town's opposition to spiritual center ends up in court

A woman finds her plan for an interfaith retreat in Virginia is not welcomed by the community.

By SUSAN KINZIE The Washington Post

INDEPENDENCE, Va. - In a clearing on a hill along a curve of the New River where apple trees bloom, Laura George wants to build a place for people of all faiths to gather in spiritual harmony.

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Laura George envisions her property, above, as a spiritual retreat with up to 10 cabins and visiting ministers – but that doesn’t sit well with townspeople in Independence, Va., below.

Photos by Jared Soares/The Washington Post

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Just one problem: Most people around here don't seem to want any part of it.

Many of them wish she'd just spiritual-journey herself on out of their town.

Last year, prayer groups sprang up to stop her after the county planning commission unanimously approved her proposal for an interfaith retreat with a "Peace Pentagon" spiritual education center, public library and 10 cabins for guests. So many people filled the board of supervisors' hearing that the panel had to move into a courtroom upstairs. After pastors and others spoke at the hearing, many saying that the project was anti-Christian, a cult and a threat to the community, the board killed it.

This summer, George's attorney will argue in that courtroom that this is a case of religious discrimination.

It's clearly a violation of the First Amendment, said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group that is helping George.

"There's just a lot of hate out there. The fear that someone like this coming into the county with 10 cabins on the water is going to do something dramatic to the community ... this is part of the religious wars we're seeing, no doubt about that," he said.

Whitehead compared the situation to recent events such as a Florida pastor burning a Koran and meetings in Virginia warning about Muslims trying to spread sharia law here.

Not so, said Jim Guynn, the attorney for Grayson County. "We don't discriminate at all, much less on the basis of religion," he said.

Besides, he said, "it's not clear to me that it is a religion. Mrs. George has always defined it as an educational center."

Guynn said that speakers also raised concerns about zoning and property values at the public hearing and that those were what the board voted on. George said she might have events such as weddings occasionally but planned to have only 20 parking spaces. If people parked along the narrow road, it would be difficult to get an ambulance or firetruck in, Guynn said.

The board voted to deny the project on health, safety and welfare grounds.

It's not uncommon for spiritual groups to face resistance from the local community, whether over parking, traffic, noise or other concerns.

Whether the board in Grayson voted on zoning concerns -- supervisors did not comment on the case -- one thing is certain: The surrounding community did not welcome George's idea.

"I'm glad it didn't come," Rhonda James of Mouth of Wilson said. She added that everyone she knows opposed the Oracle Institute because, they believe, it seems to question the word of God in the Bible. "I'm a Christian, fundamentalist Christian, and so are most people in the area."

Grayson has about 150 churches, about one for every 100 people. It borders North Carolina and Tennessee, and is close to them geographically and culturally. After Easter, the Subway sandwich shop sign proclaims: "He is risen! Celebrate at the church of your choice!"

Most of the churches are Baptist and Methodist, and some are Pentecostal. There are no synagogues, no mosques. One Muslim family worships secretly in its basement.

George said she chose Independence in part for its name, in part because she fell in love with the setting and in part because she wanted to bring her interfaith message to a fundamentalist Christian area. "I really think this is an area that needs to be exposed to some alternative belief systems," she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Laura George: “I really think this is an area that needs to be exposed to some alternative belief systems.”


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