The Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Gulbronson, pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in Alexandria, believes he has a mission to create a school where the children of his congregation can study in harmony with the Bible's teachings.
Gulbronson speaks softly but with determination. He says God and the First Amendment are on the congregation's side.
On the other side are more than 100 neighbors, the city Planning Commission and the mayor, who say that the residential neighborhood around the church on Braddock Road cannot tolerate the increased traffic and noise a school would create.
The city Planning Commission voted last week to recommend that the City Council deny the church's application for a special permit to open the school. Mayor Charles E. Beatley said last Friday he opposes the school and he predicted the council would vote against it.
"It's not a religious consideration, it's a practical one," Beatley said. "They carved their site surrounded by single-family homes. I didn't think a church belonged there, let alone a school."
Gulbronson, 40, said the Christian school, nursery through grade 12, will open in September no matter what the city rules. The church already has hired a director and three teachers and ordered books and other materials. Gulbronson said 45 students are planning to attend.
"We are not asking the City of Alexandria for permission to open a school. We have a First Amendment right to teach," he said. "What we did is apply with the city for health and safety reasons only."
City Attorney Cyril D. Calley said Friday that the church does not have the legal right to open a school without a city permit, however.
The City Council is scheduled to vote Sept. 18 on whether to grant the church a permit. Beatley said he will ask the city attorney to seek a court injunction prohibiting the church from opening a school at the site if it attempts to do so before the City Council votes.
Calley said the city has never denied a school permit so far, but if it does in this case, and the dispute goes to court, the church would be required to prove that the city acted in a discriminatory and arbitrary manner to win its case.
The controversy culminates years of disputes between the neighborhood and church, which was built in 1964, Gulbronson said. The three-story building next to the church, which would house the school, was built in 1973 but has been used only for Sunday morning Bible classes and for Wednesday evening study groups for youths.
The church applied for a permit to open a school under a previous pastor but withdrew in the face of neighborhood opposition. Gulbronson, who has been pastor for three years, said his 1,000-member congregation supports the school this time and will not back off.
The members believe "very strongly that the Bible is the word of God, ingrained in every fabric of our lives," he said. "The school is not a separate entity. It is a part of our ministry."
Gulbronson said he thinks the neighbors are uncomfortable with the church's religious beliefs.
"I was very careful of what I thought at first," he said. "Now I think the noise and traffic issues are a smoke screen. When the neighbors said no to any conciliation or compromise I knew it is deeper than noise. It is an intolerance of religion."
He said the neighbors have harassed the church. "They telephone the police every time we breathe," he said, referring to frequent reports to police of noise, litter and parking problems. "They never call me to discuss problems."
But neighbors who attended the planning commission meeting last week said noise was a serious problem that the church has not rectified.
Anne Saloom, who lives 150 feet from the proposed school building, said her family already was bothered by noise from the youth group meetings. "The sound of the children on Wednesday evening is a nuisance, to say the least. To add to that every day would place an unacceptable burden on neighbors," she said.
About 100 neighbors attended the commission meeting to object to the proposed school. They were supported by the North Ridge Citizens Association, which represents 2,600 homeowners.
Gulbronson said the commission bowed to pressure from the neighbors and the association. "The zoning staff report for the Planning Commission recommended approval," he said. "The only reason not to approve was political."
Commission members said at the meeting, however, that they were not swayed by the number of neighbors opposing the school but by their arguments that the school, which would have a maximum of 350 students, would conflict with the residential quality of the neighborhood.
"Sure the neighbors are a psychological consideration when it comes to voting on the issue," said Beatley, who was not at the meeting. "But a greater psychological consideration is how do you put 350 students on so few acres." The church is located on a 5.2 acre plot.