Robert L. Thoburn thinks his struggle to open a private school in Fairfax County, Virginia, represents a “creeping antichurch mindset” on the part of local government officials around the nation. This fall, Thoburn’s eight-year-long dispute with zoning officials came to a head when the county refused to grant him a permit to operate his school on a 42-acre site because of “environmental concerns.”

Disputed Land

Late this summer, a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge barred Thoburn and his family from opening Fairfax Christian School in a residential area. Fairfax officials said the 300-student school was “unauthorized” because it was built during the summer on property zoned for residential use. Thoburn, a former state delegate and patriarch of one of the county’s most prominent conservative Christian families, was charged with violating an earlier permit allowing only 49 students to attend the school, as well as county health and safety codes.

Some in the county have concerns about development and traffic congestion, while others fear Thoburn, a millionaire, has a hidden agenda to commercialize the area.

Thoburn says his First Amendment rights are at stake. He is planning to file a lawsuit charging Fairfax County with “patterns of discrimination” against the church and church-related schools. “I can see some objective land-use requirements, … but when the criteria become subjective, then you have a real problem,” he said.

County spokesperson Marty Machowsky placed little significance on Thoburn’s discrimination charge. “Fairfax recently wanted to purchase land in [the disputed area], and we backed off because of neighborhood opposition,” Machowsky said. “Our own plans were opposed as well.”

For now, Thoburn has ...

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