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By TINA E. VAUGHN
INDEPENDENCE — A religious discrimination lawsuit against Grayson County appears close to settlement, and one of the first steps toward that is a public hearing Tuesday on a special use permit request from The Oracle Institute.
The Grayson County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission will once again receive comments regarding proposed construction of institute’s spiritual retreat center, known as the Peace Pentagon.
The county’s denial of the institute’s request last year resulted in a lawsuit against Grayson and the board of supervisors.
"The hearing on Dec. 13 is the final step of a multi-staged settlement entered into between the county and The Oracle Institute," said the institute's president, Laura George, in a statement this week.
The board and commission will hold a joint public hearing at 7 p.m. on Dec. 13 in the Grayson County Courthouse courtroom, regarding a request from The Oracle Institute’s Laura George for a special use permit for “rural commercial recreation use” of the property in western Grayson.
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, according to its website.
Court proceedings are in continuance at the consent of both parties, according to both George and Grayson County Administrator Jonathan Sweet.
"The trial was postponed to allow for this settlement," George said. "Our lead counsel's illness also was a factor."
Sweet said that next Tuesday’s hearing — “to rehear the original application” — is being held because it is a more “cost-effective way” of completing the public hearing requirements.
The planning commission in 2010 had recommended approval of the request for a special use permit for The Oracle Institute, which planned to build a non-denominational spiritual retreat center in the Wilson District.
However, in June 2010, the Grayson County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to deny the permit request, citing a danger to the “health, welfare and safety” of county residents, and concerns regarding an access road and parking.
George has said that county officials did not consider legitimate criteria for denying her permit, and instead listened to the protests of several church leaders in the community who opposed the plan. Dozens of them spoke out against George’s request at a June 2010 public hearing, citing differences in religious beliefs — which the supervisors could not consider in making their decision.
Later, the board voted to re-hear George’s request. But by then, she had filed a lawsuit.
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, filed a suit in Grayson County Circuit Court on behalf of George, The Oracle Institute and Amethyst Acres, a limited liability company. The suit alleges that the Grayson County Board of Supervisors violated George’s 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 trial was set for last month in Grayson County, but has been postponed.
"The parties intend to formally and finally resolve this matter at the hearing, such that the concerns of all adjacent neighbors are satisfied; the health, safety, and welfare of the county are protected; and The Oracle Institute is issued a special use permit to construct the Peace Pentagon," George said.