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Oracle discrimination lawsuit proceeds

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A spiritual center has sued Grayson County over alleged religious discrimination related to a zoning issue.

By Landmark News Service

 INDEPENDENCE — The Grayson County Board of Zoning Appeals and Zoning Administrator Lisa Barker have been dropped as defendants in a lawsuit that alleges the Board of Supervisors denied a special use permit for a spiritual retreat center because of religious beliefs.

In June, the Board of Supervisors denied a special use permit for The Oracle Institute, which planned to build a non-denominational spiritual retreat center in the Wilson District. 

Oracle President Laura George contends that the permit was denied based on religious beliefs, not on legitimate criteria that can be considered. A June public hearing regarding Oracle’s request for a special use permit was marked by dozens of church leaders speaking out against the retreat. Few opponents cited any objections that the board could legitimately consider in denying the permit request.

Later, the board voted to re-hear George’s request.

Judge Brett Geisler heard pre-trial motions during a hearing in Grayson County Circuit Court on Oct. 29. The judge did not make any decisions, instead he will consider a list of motions and arguments over the next month or so.

Attorneys agreed prior to the hearing that Barker and the BZA be dropped from the suit because they had no involvement in the Grayson County Board of Supervisors' June decision. Supervisors — both as a board and individually — are named as defendants.

Attending the hearing were: George and attorney John “Jack” Donahue, of The Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville; County Administrator Jonathan Sweet and Susan Waddell, an attorney filling in for attorney Jim H. Guynn of Guynn, Memmer & Dillon, P.C. of Salem. Three interested citizens also sat in the courtroom.

County attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the case in its entirety. Other motions include dropping The Oracle Institute from the suit (Waddell argued that the institute has no standing in the case since it is not an affected property owner) and removing individual supervisors from the suit.

Donahue explained that George is president of The Oracle Institute and a managing member of Amethyst Acres, LLC (the property owner.) Because George, Oracle and Amethyst are inter-related, it is appropriate that Oracle be named as a plaintiff in the suit, he said.

Donahue argued that supervisors, as a board and individually, do not have legislative immunity, particularly in regard to alleged violations of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits religion-based discrimination in zoning and land use matters.

Geisler asked for additional documentation from attorneys to support their arguments. Attorneys have about a month to fulfill Geisler's request.