Yesterday I traveled to Charlottesville, Va., to speak at the Rutherford Institute. The Institute, founded by attorney John W. Whitehead in the 1980s as a conservative Christian legal group, has changed a lot over the years. These days, John is critical of the Religious Right, and he has expanded the work of the Institute, taking on cases dealing with “zero tolerance” policies in public schools and government surveillance of citizens.
John and I don’t agree on everything and probably never will. But some of the religious freedom cases he takes on these days are intriguing. As I visited with John in his office before I addressed a crowd of legal interns and local residents, we talked about one of his cases that was recently the subject of a Washington Post article. It concerns a woman named Laura George who wants to build an interfaith retreat in the tiny town of Independence, Va.
At first, the Grayson County Planning Commission didn’t seem bothered by the proposed center, which George calls the Oracle Institute. But when the matter reached the Board of Supervisors, controversy suddenly erupted. Some people in town, it seems, don’t like George’s religious views – and they mobilized against her.
This is odd because George’s views don’t sound so terribly controversial. She believes that conflict among religions spawns misunderstandings and violence. At her proposed “Peace Pentagon,” religious leaders would meet to discuss their differences and seek common ground.
“Our dream is to have ministers from all five of the primary religions here on alternating weeks,” George said. “Each one brought us a piece of the puzzle.”
George is talking about a fairly modest development. Aside from the center, she would erect 10 cabins for visitors. George, who believes in reincarnation, said classes would be offered on that topic and others and that visitors will have recreational opportunities such as hiking and kayaking.
For some reason, this has alarmed many of the townspeople. Some of them showed up at the supervisors’ meeting literally waving Bibles. They branded George a cultist and demanded that the facility be rejected.
Eddie Roland, pastor of a local Baptist church, held his Bible aloft and insisted that the center “stands against the word of God. I believe it’s contradictory to it. I believe it’s diametrically opposed to what this book right here stands for.”
Local resident Rhonda James told The Post, “I’m glad it didn’t come. I’m a Christian, fundamentalist Christian, and so are most people in the area.”
Even the local sheriff piled on. He examined a website George owns where she talks about the possibility of building a self-sustaining community called a “Valley of Light” that could survive in case of global instability. In an email to county officials, the sheriff opined, “This looks like it may be another Branch Davidian compound.”
The supervisors were smart enough to realize that openly denying a zoning permit on the grounds of George’s religious views would get them in a heap of trouble, so they came up with another reason to say no: parking. That’s right. In a town of 900 souls, the supervisors are arguing that George’s interfaith center will create too many parking problems. (They also said the building will spoil views along the New River.)
Whitehead isn’t buying it. He told The Post, “Those were all smoke screen issues.” He noted that the supervisors weren’t concerned about parking and views when they approved two other projects in the same area – a Christian-themed trailer park and a state prison.
The Rutherford Institute is in court, litigating on George’s behalf and accusing the county of religious discrimination. It sounds like an open-and-shut case, and I hope Whitehead’s attorneys are successful.