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Was denial based on facts or fear?

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Religion is not an appropriate criteria when considering zoning

By The Gazette

Those who visit our area often speak of the warm and inviting atmosphere, the acceptance they feel and the friendly people they meet.
So, where was that hospitality at last week’s public hearing for a special use permit sought by The Oracle Institute to create a “spiritual community” and learning center in Grayson?
Citizens have every right to oppose a rezoning issue based on the facts — in this instance, an access road that may not have been wide enough for emergency vehicles or a question about developing agricultural land. But to turn out in droves —175 people packing the county courtroom and 29 voicing mostly opposing positions — and to condemn the permit-seekers as a “cult” with allegedly dangerous ideas that could threaten the community is preposterous. Quite frankly, it makes us look bad. It perpetuates the — one hopes, mostly erroneous — stereotype of the intolerant rural citizen.
Speakers mostly ignored the factual issues and launched into religious diatribes against the New Age “eco-spiritual” group, which founder Laura George says doesn’t want to start a new church and subscribes to no religion in particular.
What was on display at the hearing was fear, pure and simple. Instead of making rational arguments about the property — and there were some legitimate, real issues that could have been brought up — speakers chose to paint The Oracle Institute as anti-Christian and bad for the souls of Graysonites.
What’s worse is that, when time came for supervisors to make a decision, they unanimously chose to reject the application because it didn’t “fit” with the community and could have been detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of citizens — a vague reasoning that still didn’t address any actual criteria for approving or denying a zoning request. Not even the access road issue was cited in the permit denial.
The institute’s beliefs, as detailed on its Web site, are not mainstream. They are not part of any one religion, but seek to unify adherents of all faiths.
From listening to the speakers at the hearing, it appears the greatest concern about the group is that it wasn’t Christian. And if that was the only criterion elected officials considered in denying the application — and there were precious few others presented by the 29 speakers, besides an access road issue briefly brought up for discussion — then this decision goes against the very American ideal of religious freedom.
Had the application come from any other established, non-Christian religion — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism — it’s doubtful the applicants would have been treated with such disrespect, or that the issue could have been dealt with so quickly by the supervisors and denied without at least taking the issue under consideration until the following meeting. At least one hopes that would have been the case.
But, because The Oracle Institute is an unknown entity, it becomes something to fear.
The group ironically succeeded in its goal of bringing local congregations together — but certainly not in a spirit of brotherhood. What’s more disappointing is that those tasked with considering only the rational issues don’t appear to have done so.