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Oracle Institute appeals case, citing discrimination

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Spiritual retreat organizer says the Grayson County Board of Supervisors denied a permit request based on her group's beliefs, thereby violating the U.S. Constitution.

By Ben Bomberger, Reporter and Brian Funk, Editor

INDEPENDENCE — The woman behind a spiritual retreat planned for Grayson County says she was discriminated against and her constitutional rights were violated when the board of supervisors unanimously voted to deny her a special use permit last month.
Laura George, president of the Oracle Institute, had requested the permit to build a spiritual education center on an 11-acre property in the Wilson District. The center would have taught spirituality and ethical environmental practices.
Last Thursday, after two supervisors said in retrospect that they were not comfortable with their votes to deny the permit, the board voted 3-2 to allow George to resubmit her application in 12 months.
But, as George said in a statement issued last Friday, “under Virginia law, I am entitled to resubmit my application within one year — at the most — from the date of its denial [on June 10]. Thus, the board's action [on July 8] granted me nothing to which I was not already entitled.”
George filed her appeal in Grayson County Circuit Court on Friday — the day after the supervisors made their decision to re-hear her case. She said the decision to appeal was made before the supervisor's took action last Thursday night.
An estimated 175 citizens turned out for the June 10 public hearing, and more than two dozen spoke to the supervisors. The vast majority of speakers opposed the non-profit institute’s plans on religious grounds.
(Speakers were told that the board could not consider differences in religious beliefs as criteria for denying the application.)
After the hearing, the board voted unanimously to reject George's application because it could, in their words, be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of citizens.
While the board could not legally make a decision based on religious differences, the supervisors did mention a few concerns with the plan — parking, an access road — before their unanimous vote.
In the weeks following the board's denial of George's permit, many in the community — as evidenced by calls and letters to The Gazette — questioned the validity of the board's vote. While many supported the supervisors' decision because it fell in line with their religious beliefs, others felt the board did not adequately explain the reasoning behind the denial.
At the board's July 8 meeting, supervisors Doug Carrico and Mike Maynard said they felt they had made the wrong decision in denying the permit.
“I think my vote on the Oracle Institute was a wrong vote,” Carrico told fellow board members. “I think we should’ve put the restrictions that we needed to [in their permit] and give them a chance to see if they would adhere to our restrictions.”
Maynard said the board should have clearly explained to George how she could improve her plan to address the supervisors' concerns. “We did not serve the citizens well.”
Chairman Larry Bartlett and supervisors Joe Vaughan and Brenda Sutherland responded that there were legitimate concerns about the property — parking, road access for emergency vehicles, a chance that it could hurt neighboring property values and the possibility that it would be detrimental to the view of the New River.
Carrico's motion to re-hear the case in a year went to vote and passed, with Bartlett and Vaughan dissenting.
Asked for comment on the board's decision, George told The Gazette that the supervisors should have approved the special use permit the first time it was submitted, “and, given [the board's] discriminatory action on June 10, there is no assurance that the permit will be approved a year from now.”
Following the advice her legal counsel, John Barry Donohue, Jr. of Richmond and The Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, George filed an appeal and plans to “pursue my legal remedies to achieve approval of the Oracle Retreat Center project and to obtain all other relief allowed under the law.”
She contends that the board's decision violated the constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia, according to her statement issued last Friday.
“The action of the board on June 10 denying my permit for an inter-faith retreat center was made on the basis of my religious beliefs and philosophy... Consequently, I felt obligated to consult with legal counsel concerning my rights and those of the other permit applicants.”