FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va.-Police reinforcements circled on bicycles outside the Fairfax County, Va., government building as voices and anger mounted inside on a July evening. A land use hearing turned into a four-hour escalation of frustrations over the expansion of a local Islamic school, located in the outskirts of Washington. Senior citizens complained about traffic, but others complained about a school they believe to be training students in extremist Islam, drawing clucks of disapproval from Muslim women in the room in headscarves.
The Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA) is a private school run by the Saudi government and criticized for teaching Wahhabism, a violent sect of Islam that follows Shariah law. Saudi government-issued textbooks at one point taught that killing adulterers and apostates was acceptable, prompting the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to condemn the curriculum as failing to meet "international human rights norms." Since then, the curriculum has been revised, eliminating most of the offensive passages according to a commissioner from USCIRF who has reviewed it.
The school is raising "the next generation of terrorists," bellowed James Lafferty of the Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force at the hearing. Others condemned the school-goers as "domestic enemies."
A Muslim woman, Dreiman Al-Bashrawi, yelled back at the school's opponents, "They are the real threat!" drawing cheers. The bemused supervisors drifted in and out to get sodas and snacks. The meeting drew to a close with little comment from the supervisors.
At the beginning of August, the board approved ISA's expansion, something it has rarely done for private schools and churches in the past. ISA sits on the former campus of Fairfax Christian School, and when that school tried to get the same approval for expansion more than 25 years ago, the board turned down the request because of "ecological concerns."
"What has changed in the previous quarter century that the ecological system is just fine?" asked Denise Lee of Woodbridge, Va. at the hearing. "There is a double standard taking place here."
But Fairfax Christian School's director Jo Thoburn was glad to hear the news about ISA. "Any improved zoning for a private school or church is a good thing," said Thoburn. "I would like to have the treatment the Saudis got."
The school has been at the forefront among religious institutions to duel with the county on land use issues, and more often than not, lose. Fairfax County is booming with commercial development, which some church and private school leaders say receives preferential treatment.
Congress addressed the problem of zoning discrimination against religious institutions in a law passed in 2000-the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides more legal protection for religious groups in zoning battles. No government may impose "a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution," the law reads, with the exception of a "compelling government interest."
A common confrontation between zoning boards and religious groups involves churches that begin serving food-which often changes the churches' zoning designation to a dining hall, which is only allowed in certain designated zones. CrossRoads United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Ariz., operates a soup kitchen for the homeless. At the beginning of August, the city ordered the church either to quit serving the food or move the meals to another location that fits zoning restrictions.
In Fairfax County, Reston Presbyterian Church filed a request to expand with the Board of Zoning Appeals in December 2007. The board did not approve the project until April 2009 and attached seven pages of conditions for the church to meet, including nearby road improvements and a left-hand turning lane.
The city of Fairfax just reversed a ruling that Truro Church had violated zoning law by serving free meals, after four months of back and forth between lawyers on both sides. The church has been hosting free meals for over 50 years. The mayor of Fairfax along with residents had sent a letter to the city manager complaining about the long line the meals created. Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, Va., had difficulty with county zoning permits too, according to Faith McDonnell of the Institute for Religion and Democracy.
These private schools and churches don't have cash reserves to fight extended legal battles or bring lawsuits under the Religious Land Use Act-but the Saudi government does. The Saudi school, Thoburn said, had to jump through the same zoning hoops as everyone else, but she sensed that the supervisors approved the school in part because they feared religious land use discrimination lawsuits from a wealthy government.
Residents at the hearing accused supervisors of being bought by Saudi money. "The board doesn't make decisions based on fears of being sued," objected board chairman Sharon Bulova. "It's not, 'Who's got the deeper pockets?'" Bulova voted against the Saudi school's expansion because of traffic concerns.
Organizations like the Becket Fund and the Anti-Defamation League have worked with religious institutions to fight these battles in court in the past. Bulova said the county created the position of an ombudsman about 10 years ago to help religious and community organizations navigate the bureaucracy. "A church or a synagogue or a mosque-they're not a developer. They may not be as conversant with the land use process," she said.
Eighty-year-old Bob Thoburn, who started the Fairfax Christian School in 1961, zoomed over its current campus in an earthmover, shuttling brush away from dead trees. He paused and shut off the motor for a moment to talk about his frustration with the county zoning practices. "I've been fighting the battle here for 50 years almost," he said.
After the county turned down Fairfax Christian's request, the school sold its campus to ISA and turned to other properties in the area to house its 500 students. When the school tried to reopen at a nearby 65-acre property, the county refused to issue a permit because the land was zoned for residential use. In the meantime, the school met in various area churches. After about seven years of back and forth with the county, the school finally got a permit for the 28-acre property where it now stands-a permit that limits the student population to 250. Beyond losing half its student body when the school was originally trying to expand, it landed in a historic district, so altering anything on the campus is difficult.
Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Va., has encountered similar hostility from the county supervisors-a "nightmarish" experience of "every church and every school that has interaction with the county," said David Stokes, the church's pastor. He said the supervisors' didn't apply the same standards for ISA's expansion. "It's almost a fawning kind of accommodation," he told me. "It's reverse discrimination."
Aside from zoning issues, he too has concerns about what ISA is teaching in its religion classes. The 25-year-old school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. ISA uses county textbooks for all classes except religion-and those controversial passages have been redacted, according to Nina Shea, a commissioner on USCIRF who has been investigating the school's teaching. But she is still concerned about the silence of the textbooks on the subject of violent jihad.
"Last year they were teaching that it was the most noble act," Shea told me. "The burden is on them to say what they teach about jihad. And they won't answer the phones."
Fairfax Christian's Jo Thoburn says she doesn't want the government to be evaluating private schools' curriculum. "They might not like that we teach creationism here," she said. "That's very bad ground to tread on."
While ISA wouldn't return WORLD's calls, its leaders are in contact with Fairfax Christian, which publicly congratulated the school after the board's approval. The Christian schools and churches know now that it will be harder for the county to say no to them in the future.