In a clearing on a hill along a curve of the New River where apple trees bloom, Laura George wants to build a place for people of all faiths to gather in spiritual harmony.
Just one problem: Most people around here don’t seem to want any part of it.
Many of them wish she’d just spiritual-journey herself on out of their town.
Last year, prayer groups sprang up to stop her after the county planning commission unanimously approved her proposal for an interfaith retreat with a “Peace Pentagon” spiritual education center, public library and 10 cabins for guests. So many people filled the board of supervisors’ hearing that the panel had to move into a courtroom upstairs. After pastors and others spoke at the hearing, many warning that it was anti-Christian, a cult and a threat to the community, the board killed the project.
This summer, George’s attorney will argue in that courtroom that this is a case of religious discrimination.
It’s clearly a violation of the First Amendment, said John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties group that is helping George.
“There’s just a lot of hate out there. The fear that someone like this coming into the county with 10 cabins on the water is going to do something dramatic to the community . . . this is part of the religious wars we’re seeing, no doubt about that,” he said.
Whitehead compared the situation to recent events such as a Florida pastor burning a Koran and meetings in Virginia warning about Muslims trying to spread sharia law here.
Not so, said Jim Guynn, the attorney for Grayson County. “We don’t discriminate at all, much less on the basis of religion,” he said.
Besides, he said, “it’s not clear to me that it is a religion. Mrs. George has always defined it as an educational center.”
Guynn said that speakers also raised concerns about zoning and property values at the public hearing and that those were what the board voted on. George said she might have events such as weddings occasionally but planned to have only 20 parking spaces. If people parked along the narrow road, it would be difficult to get an ambulance or firetruck in, Guynn said.
The board voted to deny the project on health, safety and welfare grounds.
It’s not uncommon for spiritual groups to face resistance from the local community, whether over parking, traffic, noise or other concerns.
Whether the board in Grayson voted on zoning concerns — supervisors did not comment on the case — one thing is certain: The surrounding community did not welcome George’s idea.
“I’m glad it didn’t come,” Rhonda James of Mouth of Wilson said. She added that everyone she knows opposed the Oracle Institute because, they believe, it seems to question the word of God in the Bible. “I’m a Christian, fundamentalist Christian, and so are most people in the area.”
Grayson has about 150 churches, about one for every 100 people. It borders North Carolina and Tennessee, and it’s much closer to them, geographically and culturally, as well as to West Virginia than to Northern Virginia. The river winds through the Appalachian Mountains. There are tent revivals, warm blessings called out in Southern drawls at a grocery store. After Easter, the Subway sandwich shop sign proclaims: “He is risen! Celebrate at the church of your choice!”
Most of the churches are Baptist and Methodist, and some are Pentecostal. There are no synagogues, no mosques. One Muslim family worships secretly in its basement.
George said she chose Independence in part for its name, in part because she fell in love with the setting and in part because she wanted to bring her interfaith message to a fundamentalist Christian area. “I really think this is an area that needs to be exposed to some alternative belief systems,” she said.
“I didn’t think it would be this tough,” she added.
George was a lawyer in Leesburg when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred. They shook her up. “I saw what was coming — what is here now — is what we call a great cusp . . . a period of turmoil which precedes a major paradigm shift,” she said at home.
Sept. 11 “is a symptom of a larger conflict going on spiritually around the globe,” said George, who has long black hair and was barefoot and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed peace sign T-shirt. The polarization of different religions is worsening, she said. “I just saw that things were coming to a boiling point.”
So she began writing a series of books and planning the “Peace Pentagon.” It would fit into a clearing by her home in Independence, which she moved into last year when her son finished high school. Ten cabins for visitors and classes (including exploration of past lives), meditation, hiking and kayaking would be available.
“Our dream is to have ministers from all five of the primary religions here on alternating weeks,” she said. She said people need to draw from each religion: “Each one brought us a piece of the puzzle.”
Some people said she was lying — that her talk about Thomas Jefferson and religious freedom was a cover for something ominous.
Many had questions about a future project George described on a Web site: She wants to create a “Valley of Light” in the 320 miles of the New River Valley, a self-sustaining community preparing for turbulent times of terrorism, food and water shortages, and global warming.
“This looks like it may be another Branch Davidian compound,” the sheriff wrote in an e-mail to county officials, according to documents produced during discovery.
The night of the hearing for the special-use permit, George saw circles of people in the parking lot, heads bent, holding bibles.
One or two people spoke in support of George, but the majority of speakers were unified, strongly opposed to the center.
Eddie Roland, pastor of Brush Creek Baptist Church, stood up at the meeting with his Bible in hand and said the proposed 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.”
At one point a supervisor reminded speakers that they could not vote based on religious reasons.
Some supervisors said it didn’t seem consistent with the community, it could ruin the views along the river and asked about the road leading into it. One proposed rejecting it for the health, safety and welfare of the county.
The supervisors voted against the center, including one who had previously approved it in his role on the county planning commission.
“Those were all smoke screen issues,” Whitehead said. “The road had already been semi-approved” by the planning commission. As for the view and parking issues, he said, the board had in recent years approved a large trailer park for Christian retirees and a state prison to be built on the banks of the river. (George also sued the county over the prison. The site was directly across from her house, which is large and has a veranda. It was later built in another area.)
People get to speak their minds at a public hearing, Guynn said, but that doesn’t mean that’s why the board voted as it did: “These are good folks. They know their job, they know what they’re doing, and they’re going to respect the law.”
If she wins the suit, George said, she would start building right away and open as soon as possible for classes and events. Then she laughed a little, saying, “If anybody comes!”