Prestley and Helen Blake’s property in Con­necticut that includes a replica of Mon­ti­cello. Courtesy | Wayne Dumas

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.