Fairfax County supervisors on Monday narrowly voted to let a Saudi-funded Islamic prep school expand its campus on a hazardous country road, capping a months-long debate that mashed traffic concerns with accusations that the school's curriculum fosters religious intolerance.
The Board of Supervisors, in one of the most delicate decisions in their recent history, voted 6-4 to approve a construction project that would expand the Islamic Saudi Academy's 34-acre property on Popes Head Road in Fairfax by roughly 230 students. It currently has about 270 students.
The school also has a campus on Richmond Highway in the Alexandria section of the county, teaching about 700 students.
The approval drew jeers from critics of the academy, who have sought to turn the case into an indictment of radical Islam and the Saudi government, as well as to resurrect controversies surrounding the school's texts. Jim Lafferty, their de-facto leader, invoked the Alamo in his denunciation of the expansion, and vowed political retaliation against the supervisors who supported it.
Their gripe was largely separate from that of the school's neighbors, who fear a spike in traffic accidents along the winding, shoulderless road. Supervisors, who ruled only on those land-use concerns, seemed acutely aware they sat in the glare of the national spotlight.
"The weight of this decision has not been lost on me, and I can sincerely say this has not been easy," said Republican Supervisor Pat Herrity, whose Springfield District encompasses the campus.
Notably, Herrity and Democratic Chairwoman Sharon Bulova were among those opposing the expansion, bucking the recommendation the county Planning Commission. The two opposed each other in a February election to replace outgoing Chairman Gerry Connolly.
A 2007 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested the academy's books contained passages promoting intolerance toward non-Muslims, and urged the academy be shut down. The school says its curriculum has been revised since then.
The life sentence handed to the school's 1999 valedictorian, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, also drew negative attention to the academy in the run-up to Monday's board meeting. Abu Ali was re-sentenced in federal court late last month after being convicted in 2005 of joining al Qaeda and plotting to kill President George W. Bush.
Other supervisors, however, called the school a good neighbor, and said the charges leveled at the Islamic Saudi Academy are misplaced. In rebutting its critics, the school points to its partnership with Fort Belvoir in which it trains U.S. soldiers in Arabic.
Attorney Lynne Strobel, who represented the academy, said she is pleased with the supervisors' vote and said the school has taken steps to ease some of the potential traffic congestion.