Hillsdale College has officially acquired the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom, following a dispute with local officials in Somers, Connecticut.
The 90-acre property, which includes a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, was donated by Prestley and Helen Blake last year. They hoped the property would be used as an educational venue. Prestley Blake is the co-founder of Friendly’s restaurants.
Final approval came on Aug. 21 from the Somers Planning Commission, which had heard complaints from residents that the Blake Center would increase traffic in their neighborhoods.
To reduce this anxiety, Hillsdale sponsored a traffic study and also paid for the city to run its own, emblematic of the college’s desire to be a “good neighbor” to the people of Somers, Helen Blake said. Neither study found the center would noticeably increase local traffic.
Separately, a local ordinance challenged the center’s standing as a religious institution, asserting that it did not count because it is not a place of worship.
Robert Norton, vice president and general counsel for Hillsdale College, claimed otherwise.
“Core to this entire project is the fact that Hillsdale College is a religious institution,” Norton said.
Hospitals and certain educational facilities can serve as religious institutions, which means the definition of a religious institution is “broader than simply a church or a mosque,” said Norton.
“That definition can include institutions that have, at their core, religious endeavors, like Hillsdale College and the Faith and Freedom Center,” Norton added.
Norton characterized the controversy as not merely a question of property rights but rather a battle over religious freedom and a proper reading of the Constitution. All too often, Norton explained, separation of church and state becomes a weapon against faith itself rather than the freedom to practice one’s faith in the public square as the founding fathers intended.
George Schober, a Somers-area attorney involved in the legal proceedings, said, “the commission granted unanimous consent to the use of the property as The Blake Center for Faith and Freedom.”
The center, said Schober, is “an amazing gift to the Somers community,” not Hillsdale alone. The Blakes’ gift will remain “a beautiful addition to the Hall Hill Road area” as Hillsdale opens and operates the center itself, he added.
Schober said that he is “proud to have assisted with this matter,” and eagerly anticipates “seeing the Blake Center achieve its full potential and become a vital part of the Somers community.”
According to a press release, the college’s plans for the Blake Center “constitute religious-institutional uses protected by state, federal, and constitutional law.”
The center will focus on educating people on the interrelatedness of faith and freedom. The property will have two chapels on its property for holding worship services and educational events — one in a renovated stone barn and one within the center’s replica Monticello. In addition, Norton said the college hopes to employ a chaplain at the center and plans to maintain a library providing materials to foster crucial discussions of religious freedom and constitutional rights.
Although the Blake Center cannot yet hold events, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Norton said the college plans to hold a celebration thanking the Blakes for their donation before the center begins operating regularly.