Oracle Institute sues Grayson County

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Lawsuit claims the county violated the religious institute founder's First Amendment rights.

By Landmark News Service


INDEPENDENCE — The Oracle Institute is suing Grayson County, saying the Board of Supervisors and a number of county officials discriminated against the organization's founder when they denied her a special use permit for a spiritual retreat center in the Wilson District.

A civil suit filed in Grayson County Circuit Court on July 19 alleges that supervisors, who are named as a board and individually, the Board of Zoning Appeals and Zoning Administrator Lisa Barker violated Oracle Institute President Laura 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.

Oracle is suing for $300,000 in damages, plus attorneys' fees and expenses.
The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, filed the suit on behalf of George, The Oracle Institute and Amethyst Acres, a limited liability company which owns the proposed spiritual retreat center site near New River.

George said in a statement earlier this month that the county officials did not consider legitimate criteria for denying her special use permit to build the center, 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 public hearing, citing differences in religious beliefs — which the supervisors could not consider in making their decision.

The board unanimously denied the request, citing a danger to the “health, welfare and safety” of county residents, and did not specify their reasoning for the decision beyond a brief discussion of an access road and parking.

“The Oracle Institute has a right to be treated fairly and without discrimination and in the same manner as other religious institutions,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute in a written statement on Monday. “While the Constitution assures the right of religious freedom, Congress recognized the need for further safeguards, especially in relation to zoning issues, and passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“Hopefully, Grayson County officials will recognize the error of their ways in this matter and act in accordance with federal law.”

County Administrator Jonathan Sweet wouldn't comment specifically on the suit but said that County Attorney Jim Cornwell is handling the case on behalf of Grayson, for now. Sweet said the county planned to notify its insurers Monday afternoon of the litigation. In all likelihood, the insurer could provide its own attorney for the matter.

Oracle also has appealed the board's zoning decision, which should be heard in the next 12 months.

After two supervisors earlier this month reconsidered their votes against the special use permit and asked to have another hearing, the supervisors voted 3-2 to rehear George's request in a year.

George said that this action was pointless — after filing her appeal, she was already entitled by the zoning law to have her case reheard in a year.

Oracle lawsuit.pdf1.95 MB