Zoning Permit Speech to Board of Supervisors - Grayson County (12/13/2011)

Earlier today, I drove down to the New River to meditate on what message I would like to convey tonight to the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors, my immediate neighbors, and those in attendance, as we collectively participate in this final stage of a settlement worked out between the County’s legal counsel and Oracle’s lawyers. As I turned off my car, the song “Little Pink Houses” by John Cougar Mellencamp was playing. For those who don’t remember, that was a song Mellencamp sang frequently during his “Farm Aid” concerts – charity events that helped farmers who were being foreclosed upon in the 1980’s during our last banking crisis.

The refrain from “Little Pink Houses” is simple enough, yet it brought tears to my eyes:

Oh but ain't that America for you and me.
Ain't that America something to see baby.
Ain't that America home of the Free.
Little pinks houses for you and me.

As I sat by the New River – the oldest river in our nation – I thought about America. I thought about Freedom. And I thought about how fragile our Freedom is right now, given this country’s fear-based and, I believe, immoral response to the events of 9/11. Then I counted in my mind, the numerous civil rights that have been stripped from our Constitution over the last decade under the falsehood of securing the very liberties that we have voluntarily relinquished.

And then, I thought about the role religious fanaticism has played in the demise of these rights, particularly at the hands of the Religious Right – Christians who would foolishly abandon Religious Freedom and the Right to Free Speech if it means “others” are the ones silenced.

You see, I am very proud to be an American. And for some reason, which I cannot fully articulate, I am even more proud to be a Virginian. Perhaps it is because I was born in this Commonwealth. Perhaps it is because I shall die here. Most definitely, though, part of the reason I am so proud to be from Virginia is that my favorite Founding Fathers walked this land before me: Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; James Madison, author of the United States Constitution, and the “indispensible man” George Washington, our first president.

Before he died, Thomas Jefferson designed his own tombstone and authored its inscription, which reads:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence,
of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”

It is notable that Jefferson did not mention his presidency, highlighting, instead, the gifts which have outlived his earthly body. All three of Jefferson’s gifts to the America are personal to me. Referring to Jefferson’s tombstone again, this time noting his three gifts in reverse order:

1. I was incredibly fortunate to attend the University of Virginia;
2. The Oracle Institute Mission Statement is Jefferson’s Act for Religious Freedom; and
3. I am a citizen of the nation which his Declaration of Independence created and now, ironically, I live in a town called Independence.

While most people know that James Madison authored the First Amendment, which he presented to the 1st Congress in 1789 and which was adopted in 1791, few know that Madison patterned the First Amendment after Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom. The First Amendment reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Jefferson authored the Act for Religious Freedom in 1777, more than 10 years before Madison drafted the First Amendment. Jefferson’s Act is quite long, so I will not read the entire statute. Suffice it to say that the Act has withstood the test of time, as it is still on the books in Virginia as VA Code section 57-1. I will read one section of the Act, though, as it pertains to Oracle’s goal with respect to the Peace Pentagon – which contains a chapel in which we shall teach about and invite ministers from all the world’s religions.

“[A]lmighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author ….;

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time; …

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; …

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty ….;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. … [W]e are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

In conclusion, for the last 18 months, it has been my position that the governing Supervisors of Grayson County violated the Virginia statute protecting Religious Freedom, which, I repeat, is the official Oracle Institute Mission Statement. As an interfaith minister, I could do no less.

And for the past year and a half, I have felt obliged to use the courts and the calming influence of the passage of time to allow the Supervisors to rectify a wrong made and to uphold their oaths of office. As an attorney, I also could do no less.

Therefore, with the humility of one who also has made mistakes and needed time to rectify them, it is with sincere gratitude that I stand before the Supervisors tonight and accept the terms of a settlement that they have offered to me, which I will now list as those terms pertain to the conditions of Oracle’s special use permit:

You have before you amended Proffers which are nearly identical to the Proffers submitted with Oracle’s original permit application. Therefore, I will highlight only the modified terms.

1. Oracle shall widen the road from Battlefield Drive to the Peace Pentagon, in accordance with the Statewide Building Code and Fire Safety Code;
2. Oracle shall maintain the already existing tree buffer along neighboring lot lines to a density of 25 feet;
3. Oracle will restrict occupancy in the Peace Pentagon to 50 persons per class, 25 persons per retreat, and 100 persons for special events;
4. Oracle shall restrict outdoor evening lighting; and
5. Oracle shall have the right to build either 10 cabins or 2 lodges in the future, provided the total sleeping capacity of these ancillary buildings shall not exceed 20 persons.

If there are any questions concerning the Proffers, the alternative Site Plans, or our intended uses of the Peace Pentagon, I am happy to respond. And again, I thank you for this opportunity to become part of this community and to provide the first interfaith and social justice center in Grayson County, Virginia.