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Calvary Day School Debate Gets Testy

Employees of embattled Fairwinds Day School, Calvary Christian Center, phrase debate over special use permit in stark religious terms, drawing the criticism of members of the City Council.

The Fredericksburg City Council was treated to a heated public hearing over a new special use application on behalf of the embattled Calvary Christian Center to host a day school for mentally and emotionally disabled students. Proponents of the day school, framed the argument in dramatic terms, classifying their opponents as working against the purposes of God.

As expected, the City Council took no action on the matter,

Co-pastor Susan Hirsch, wife of Pastor Michael Hirsch, framed those who would vote against issuing the church the special use permit in stark religious terms. Church officials have said that they will drop their suit against the city if the new permit is approved. 

"This is actually a God use issue, you do not want to mess with him. I admonish you not to come against his purposes," said Susan Hirsch before City Council. "Either you are working with God and his purposes or against him."

"Sadly it seems that some of you have become pawns in the enemies hands, most likely blinded to the point that you don't even know what you are doing. But be assured that whatever you sow, you also will reap," said Susan Hirsch to Council.

Following Hirsch's comments, Fredericksburg resident Ed Murphy took the stand, identifying himself as a resident of Goodlowe Drive, in the vicinity of the proposed day school. 

"I speak as a neighbor, because I'm about a five iron away from the home," said Murphy, identifying himself as a social worker. "It should be the goal of every student to be in the school of their choice."

But Murphy, in his testimony before Council on behalf of the church, did not openly refer to his position as the director of Fairwinds Day School, which he divulged in an interview after the public hearing.

So, why would they dance around the issue?

According to Murphy, it's because of Fairwind's history of zoning violations in the city of Fredericksburg. 

One argument leveled against the city of Fredericksburg in the discrimination lawsuit is that city officials gave too much preference to the disabled status of the students rather than legitimate land use issues. City attorneys counter that the rather than discriminatory concerns over disabled students, were a central and legitimate concern in denying awarding a special use permit.

Jennifer Vitale also addressed the City Council in favor of the church, saying during the meeting that she was an employee of the school which is "entering into a partnership with Calvary Christian Center", while refusing to divulge the specific name of that school to the City Council or members of the media. However, the interview with Murphy made it clear that she has worked for Fairwinds since July 2010.

"I don't think that has anything that has to do with the issue at hand," said Vitale in an interview after the meeting. "It's a land use issue, it shouldn't have anything to do with the partnership or anything."

Similarly, Pastor Michael Hirsch has been tight lipped about the identity of the school which was interested in locating at his church. He has taken great pains to note to anyone who will listen that his church's new application does not name a specific school which will operate on its premises should it be awarded the special use permit. 

"I cannot say, on behalf of the elders of Calvary Christian Church, that we have that partnership yet," said Michael Hisch.

However, in an interview after the public hearing, Ed Murphy director of the Fairwinds Day School said that his school was engaged in preliminary talks with Calvary Christian Center to operate at the church. He said his school's prior history of zoning violations has unfairly singled them out for scrutiny among members of the City Council. 

It also does not specify who will operate the school, saying only that it will serve 12 students with individual education plans from regional school districts, down from 18 in the original application, between the ages of eight and 15. 

Fairwinds has been in operation in various locations in the city since 2009. It serves students diagnosed with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder induced by child abuse, bi-polar disorder, speech and language impairments, and other mental and emotional disabilities. According to city documents, it has been cited twice for operating without proper zoning authorization in two neighborhoods in the city.

The tension of the hearing reached a peak during questioning from members of the Fredericksburg City Council. Ward 1 Councilor Brad Ellis and at-large Councilor Kerry Devine attempted a series of direct questions to learn details of the the school or schools which the church has been in contact with to operate the day school. Each question was deflected by Hirsch, who asserted that if the special use permit is granted, they could invite any state certified school to operate on site. 

Eventually, the questioning between Ellis and Hirsch devolved into such a garbled back and forth that Mayor Thomas Tomzak called for order and began to more closely moderate the debate. 

"This is a public discussion for the goodwill of the citizens of Fredericksburg, it's a complicated issue, and we're going to use Roberts rules of order," said Tomzak after banging his gavel to restore order. 

The sharp tenor of the public hearing and religious posturing drew sharp criticism from Ward 2 Councilor George Solley. 

"I would have to say, that in the five years I've been before City CouncilI've had a number of contentious issues, I've had a number of people come before us who've been very passionate about what they though was right, but nobody has ever come close to being as smugly self righteously, patronistic and insulting before this body tonight," said Solley at the conclusion of the public hearing. "And I want you to know that."

Hirsch issued a qualified apology for his fiery comments after the meeting.

"I apologize," said Hirsch, who said he objected to Ellis asking Hirsch about the expected profits from the school. "I mean Patrick Henry didn't say 'give me liberty or give me death," mocking a wimpy accent as he quoted the American hero.

"This is a public forum, I'm fighting for these children," said Hirsch.  

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