Students from Hillsdale College recently returned from an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the First Liberty Fellowship, a program that seeks to inspire and equip young people to be advocates for religious freedom.
The fellowship is a project of the First Liberty Institute, the largest religious liberty legal organization in the nation. As fellows, students spent five days attending lectures, interacting with religious liberty experts and lawyers, meeting donors, and networking with students from across the country.
Senior Katarina Bradford was the first Hillsdale student to take part in the fellowship back in 2016 and quickly became a recruitment ambassador. Since then, Hillsdale has sent a contingent of students every year. Despite this being the fellowship’s most competitive year yet, Hillsdalians accounted for six out of the 16 fellows: juniors Adelaide Holmes, Hadiah Ritchey, Mason Aberle and Lukas Swenson, sophomore Dan Grifferty, and senior Rachel Fredrick.
Holmes, a politics major, said her interest in religious liberty inspired her to apply for the fellowship. During the summer between her freshman and sophomore year of college, she learned of a Christian couple who owned a farm in Michigan and partnered with the state to teach underprivileged women how to make a living off the land. However, when the Department of Agriculture discovered that the farm was incorporating prayer and biblical teaching into the curriculum, it stripped them of their state charter, demanded the passwords to their social media sites, and charged them with a fine. Holmes said she was incensed.
“I was mad that these people didn’t have justice,” she said. “That showed me I was really passionate about religious freedom, and I realized it was something I should look into more deeply.”
When Holmes heard about the fellowship from Bradford, she knew she had to apply.
This year’s conference kept students busy from 8 a.m. until after 10 p.m., and crammed in 11 lectures from Wednesday through Saturday. The speaker lineup included Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, conservative commentator and podcaster Allie Stuckey, and Eastern University philosophy professor R. J. Snell. Hillsdale’s Matthew Spalding, associate vice president of the Alan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies in D.C., and Nathan Schlueter, professor of philosophy and religion, were also featured. Schlueter received his Ph.D. in politics and considers political philosophy to be his area of expertise. His interest in the intersection of these three fields inspired the lecture he gave during the program.
“My topic was about why religious liberty is the first liberty,” Schlueter said. “I walked students through a history of religious liberty and broke it down into several key moments. We kind of assume that it’s a basic liberty that’s always been there and that’s mapped onto human nature and that every decent political regime will protect it. But the fact is that it had to be won out through a lot of stress and strain and its achievement was actually very late.”
In addition to attending lectures, fellows had the opportunity to explore the nation’s capital.
“I think First Liberty did a really good job of balancing learning with fun,” said Ritchey. “Our hotel was within walking distance of the National Mall. We went on a Segway tour of D.C, had a private tour of the Capitol, got to go to the Museum of the Bible, ate at the Trump Hotel, and had free time to explore on Saturday night.”
Attendees said the program not only allowed them to learn more about religious liberty but also to refine their future goals. Swenson, an economics major, spent this past summer interning with the Minnesota Family Council where he worked on the policy side of religious freedom. He said he appreciated the opportunity First Liberty offered to view the issue from a legal perspective as well.
“In terms of career plans, First Liberty expanded my horizons a bit,” Swenson said. “Since the fellowship, I would say I’m more likely to consider going to law school or doing something in the legal field, either for a non-profit advocacy group like Minnesota Family Council or perhaps for First Liberty.”
“Religious liberty is an issue that I’d been personally interested in but wasn’t really the route I’d considered going with, mainly because it’s pretty hard to make a career out of one issue,” she said. “If I did end up going to law school, I was hoping to work for a more general firm, but First Liberty was a really cool opportunity to see the possibilities of working as a nonprofit lawyer.”
Swenson recommends that anyone with an interest in law or politics or who considers themselves religious should apply for next year’s program.
“It was certainly a valuable experience to be able to spend time with like-minded individuals, deepen our understanding of religious liberty, and be encouraged,” he said. “There is value in standing up for what is true and religious liberty is the defense of truth.”