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How the coming of a conservative Midwestern college divided a small CT town

S. Prestley Blake, the co-founder of the Friendly's restaurant chain, donated his Somers estate to Michigan's Hillsdale College. The school has grand plans to open an adult-learning center on the property, whose centerpiece is a replica of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. But questions about the school's religious bona fides which pushed the deal through have left a bad taste in some residents' mouths.

  • 21 min to read

Since early 2019, Hillsdale College, a small, deeply conservative Michigan liberal arts school and a superstar of the American right, has been trying to open an adult-education facility in rural Somers on the Massachusetts border. Its partner is the town’s wealthiest and most famous resident, 105-year-old Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake. The facility’s centerpiece is to be a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that Blake, an admirer of the third president and his home, spent more than $7 million building several years ago on property next to his 77-acre estate. Blake is donating his estate, plus $25 million, to the project.

In a video on the project’s website, Blake’s wife, Helen, explains that the donation fulfilled the couple’s goals of preserving their estate and seeing it used for the greater good. “Hillsdale just fit that bill perfectly,” she says in the video. “Hillsdale stands for those principles and those long-lasting values that we are missing, and we want to see those next generations be taught.”

But what appeared at first to be a slam dunk — the town is strongly Republican and many of its 11,000-plus residents were initially welcoming — turned into a bitter 1½-year battle. When the school’s first proposal for an institute for adult-education courses and lectures on the U.S. Constitution, history and economic freedom foundered on zoning rules, it decided to play hardball. The school returned with a new proposal for a religious studies center, began calling itself a religious institution — something it had not done with its first plan — and openly threatened to sue under a controversial federal religious anti-discrimination law if the zoning commission said no.

"My problem all along is when they first arrived in town, they weren’t a religious institution. The longer the process went on, the holier Hillsdale College became."

Many people in town viewed the school’s updated characterization of itself as a religious institution — it is not affiliated with a church — as a cynical misrepresentation to get around zoning rules. “My problem all along is when they first arrived in town, they weren’t a religious institution,” says Joe Duffy, who lives near the planned institute. “The longer the process went on, the holier Hillsdale College became.”

The Blakes and Hillsdale knew the second proposal would face opposition. In the video on Hillsdale’s Monticello website, Prestley Blake acknowledges that “a few local people don’t think it’s so good” and pledges that the project would ultimately prove “a big asset to the community.”

“We’d like [people] to know that it’s a place of respect and we hope that they understand nothing is going to change for them because Hillsdale wants to be a good neighbor,” Helen Blake adds. 

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In a short video posted at blakecenterproject.org, Helen and Prestley Blake discuss their decision to donate their Somers property to Hillsdale College. The couple wanted to “leave some kind of a legacy that would use our estate for some greater good […] for the future of our children, grandchildren and our country,” Helen says, adding: “And Hillsdale just fit that bill perfectly.”

What followed were four contentious public hearings over as many months at which dozens of residents spoke and submitted letters for and against the proposal. Forty-five people spoke, a number of them more than once, and dozens of letters were sent to the commission, with a majority of both opposed. The commission also received two petitions signed by a total of 132 residents calling for rejection of the proposal. Signs sprouted along the road across from Monticello reading “Not Hillsdale College Here” and “Keep Hall Hill Road Residential,” referring to the road on which the institute would be. Opponents were concentrated in the neighborhood near the project and among the more liberal members of the community, while supporters tended to be the more conservative members of the local GOP, people from both sides say.

Throughout the process, the school’s lawyers, led by an aggressive, high-profile litigator who once clerked for late conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, made both veiled and overt litigation threats, at one point demanding officials preserve all communications and documents for an imminent lawsuit. The unhappy speakers, combined with the constant worry of an expensive lawsuit, left the town’s volunteer zoning commission battered and intimidated, its chairwoman says.

“In more than a dozen years on the Zoning Commission, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” Chairwoman Jill Conklin, a longtime local real estate agent, told Connecticut Magazine in April. “When you have more attorneys in the room than members, it gets pretty intimidating.”

By the time the public hearing closed in March, the initial friendliness between the town and the college had long since evaporated. When the commission finally voted to approve the project in mid-July — deliberations were delayed by the COVID-19 shutdown — members did so without comment or debate, unusual for such a contentious application. The approvals included restrictions on use of the Monticello replica — 11 seminars, three lectures and two teacher-training sessions a year with a maximum of 75 guests on the property. Reached for comment afterward, Conklin says, “We gave them exactly what they asked for.” She and attorney Evan Seeman, an outside expert hired to assist with the application, declined further comment, citing continuing fears of litigation. 

Asked if the school might still sue, Emily Stack Davis, Hillsdale’s media and public relations director, in a statement to Connecticut Magazine in August, says that the college agreed to the restrictions, even though it believes it’s not required to, out of respect for neighbors’ concerns and a desire to be a good neighbor. “The college looks forward to demonstrating its commitment to being a positive addition to the community,” she says. 

The Blakes’ lawyer, John Parks, did not return calls seeking comment.

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Hillsdale College, a tiny, conservative liberal arts school in Michigan, is in the process of turning a Somers replica of Jefferson's Monticello and its neighboring properties into what the school is calling a "center of faith and freedom."

A town divided

Critics say that Hillsdale’s threats of ruinous litigation and its deep pockets — the school’s endowment as of 2018 was $668 million, tax records show, and it spent nearly $5 million buying properties, including Monticello, for the center — effectively left the commission with no choice but to approve the project. “We’re a small town,” resident Ann Levesque says. “We have a small budget. It’s just money again that’s talking, and it calls the shots.”

Some residents, however, applaud the approval. Resident Ryan Horn, who spoke in favor of the project at one public hearing, says he was happy Hillsdale is preserving a large piece of open space and predicted the facility would be an asset to the town. Opponents, he says, are a small but vocal minority and suggests that the school’s religious aspect may have contributed to opposition. “I feel a lot of people have come and just tried to attribute some nefarious motive,” Horn says. “To what end? What good does it do them? They are not coming here to be a bad neighbor. I think they hold Christian values as part of their makeup. That’s not necessarily a popular thing to be in the United States.”

Selectman Timothy Keeney, who served as Hillsdale’s lawyer for its initial proposal and is the chairman of the GOP Town Committee, which endorsed the project, calls the outcome “the right conclusion [to] a long and arduous process.” He says the facility may enable the town’s schools to tap Hillsdale’s teacher-training programs. He also points to preservation of public access to the property, suggesting it would be an ideal training ground for the high school’s cross country team.

"They are not coming here to be a bad neighbor. I think they hold Christian values as part of their makeup. That’s not necessarily a popular thing to be in the United States."

Surveying the aftermath in late July, Somers First Selectman C.G. “Bud” Knorr Jr., who remained publicly neutral throughout the process, said the project became an emotional and divisive issue in town. Anger continues to percolate among some, he says. “I don’t deny the fact that it’s splitting this town,” says Knorr, a Republican. “There are some people who feel it’s not a religious institution. Basically, there are two different sides. I don’t like anything that divides the community.”

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Some residents of Hall Hill Road in Somers are opposed to the coming of an educational facility run by Michigan’s Hillsdale College.

Knorr says he thinks the center brings little to Somers, while costing it about $100,000 a year in lost property taxes — as an educational institution, Hillsdale is tax exempt. Hillsdale representatives repeatedly stated publicly that the school or the Blakes would make up the lost revenue, but Knorr said in mid-August that he had yet to receive anything in writing.

“ ‘We’ll take care of it’ [Hillsdale representatives have said],” Knorr says. “Does that mean they will take care of the taxes? Or offer something in response to the taxes, like building a firehouse? As chief executive of the town, I’d like to see some specifics on that.”

In a statement sent to Connecticut Magazine in August, Hillsdale spokeswoman Davis says that the school “historically does not backfill taxes lost through its purchases,” but that the Blakes “wish to provide some means of making Somers whole as to lost tax revenue for at least some period of time.” Davis adds that Hillsdale General Counsel Robert Norton II offered at the last zoning commission public hearing to discuss the issue with the town, but no one from Somers has contacted him. 

Blake attorney Parks did not return several messages left in August asking if his clients would cover the taxes.

Keeney, who disputes Knorr’s statement that the application divided the town and dismisses opponents as a small minority, says he is confident the school will act to make up the funds. “I sincerely believe there will be some sort of accommodation on the tax issue. I think the time is near,” adding he has not spoken to the school.

Even as he backs the new institute, Horn says that Hillsdale needs to step up on the taxes. “I would expect them to fulfill their word,” he says. “If they didn’t do that, I’d be very disappointed.”

Getting to know Hillsdale College

Largely unknown outside die-hard conservative circles and serious political junkies, Hillsdale College in rural Michigan aspires to be the Harvard of the right. That has attracted a who’s who of famous, wealthy and powerful supporters, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Vice President Mike Pence and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak. The school accepts no federal or state funding — it says it doesn’t want the strings attached — and teaches a curriculum focused all but exclusively on the classics of Western thought and literature. Hillsdale says that its approximately 1,500 students are held to the highest of ethical and moral standards and constantly exhorted to seek out “the good, the true and the beautiful.”

The school is especially proud of its origins. Founded in 1844 by abolitionist Free Will Baptists, Hillsdale proclaims on its website that it was the first college in America to accept students irrespective of race and sex, and sent more students to fight for the Union in the Civil War than any non-military school. Today, however, the school has no affirmative action or diversity programs, arguing they are discriminatory and contrary to its founding ideals of a color-blind, unified America. It keeps no statistics on its racial makeup, something it would have to do if it took government money. The school’s mission statement explains that it “values the merit of each unique individual, rather than succumbing to the dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity,’ which judges individuals not as individuals, but as members of a group and which pits one group against other competing groups in divisive power struggles.”

 

Hillsdale College aspires to be the Harvard of the right. That has attracted a who’s who of famous, wealthy and powerful supporters.

To what degree Hillsdale is a religious institution — the key to winning approval of its Somers project — is open to debate. The school ended its affiliation with Free Will Baptists in 1907 but retains a religious element. It still calls itself “a nonsectarian Christian institution” and has placed a greater emphasis on religion in recent years, clarifying the school’s Christian affiliation in its mission statement, adding a required course on Christianity and spending $31 million to build a new chapel, which it opened last year with great fanfare. It recently launched its ambitious “Four Pillars” fundraising campaign, “faith” being one of the pillars.

Hillsdale, however, does not require its approximately 1,500 students or faculty to sign a profession of belief, typical at religious schools, and accepts students of all faiths. Its 34-member board of trustees and senior leadership include no clergy members or theologians, and religious studies are not among its top 10 majors. In a video on the school’s website aimed at prospective students, an undergraduate says that while Christianity is important at the school, it is “not official.” Of its 26 free adult-education online courses, just three are on religious topics.

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While Hillsdale College is little-known outside political circles, the small school in southern Michigan has come to be considered a “hidden gem” of the American conservative movement. That’s largely due to the leadership of Hillsdale’s president since 2000, Larry Arnn, who is also a professor of politics and history at the college and was formerly the president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank. Arnn has made clear his feelings about the current state of U.S. governance: “Today the authority of [the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution] is in obvious decline ... our government has swollen beyond recognition, and it is centralized to a degree unimagined in the Constitution,” he wrote in a 2016 edition of Imprimis, Hillsdale’s opinion journal.

Fourteen concern the U.S. Constitution, government, history or economics, and it is the teaching of those subjects and promotion of conservative political ideas for which Hillsdale is best known. All students are required to take a course on the Constitution. But the school’s interpretations of the founding documents and American history are to many Americans unconventional and controversial.

In Hillsdale’s worldview, America went wrong in the early 20th century with the rise of the progressive movement, which sought to address through government the inequities and injustices of the industrial age. In this interpretation, Theodore Roosevelt and especially Woodrow Wilson are among the worst, if not the worst, American presidents, because they were progressives who effectively undermined the Constitution by creating what the school calls an undemocratic and despotic administrative state to address society’s ills.

“The modern administrative state transformed the American republic into an oligarchy,” reads the description of a lecture entitled “The Administrative State Today” from its most popular online course, Constitution 101: The Making & History of the Constitution. “Today, an elite and insular administrative class rules without the consent of American citizens. Moreover, administrative rule is both anti-constitutional and pre-constitutional, because it replaces the rule of law with unaccountable regulatory agencies.” 

Only by significantly paring back the administrative state — of which there are more than 150 government agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration — can freedom, democracy and the Constitution be restored, according to Hillsdale. The school’s materials never specify how far it would take this approach, although its president, Larry Arnn, has strongly implied he supports the abolition of the EPA and the Department of Education. (Arnn also favors a repeal of the 17th Amendment, which provides for popular election of senators instead of by state legislatures.)

This narrative dominates Hillsdale’s curriculum, public statements of its leaders, lecture series, writings of its faculty and a massive adult-education effort that, in addition to free online courses, includes in-person seminars held nationwide and a free online opinion journal, Imprimis, with more than 4 million subscribers. Five of the 12 lectures, for example, in Constitution 101 — modeled after a course required of all Hillsdale students and taken, according to the college, by about 1 million people — focus on condemning progressivism and the administrative state. Similar criticisms and arguments play a major role in its recently introduced online course on American history. The school even devotes an entire online course to the subject: Constitution 201: The Progressive Rejection of the Founding and the Rise of Bureaucratic Despotism.

Asked about these views, spokeswoman Davis does not contest them but adds that the school does not reject all regulation. “However, the college does believe that the regulatory agencies should not have unbridled authority to restrict liberty and freedom beyond those areas where it is essential to maintain a just and civil society,” she says. “For example, everyone needs to know that a red light means ‘stop’ and a green light means ‘go.’ ” 

While the school avoids demonizing language in its outreach materials, a harsher and more extreme assessment sometimes peeks through. Professor Bradley Birzer, director of American Studies at Hillsdale, teaches a required course called The American Heritage. In a video posted online in early April that appears to be a lecture from the course, Birzer says: “I will state here categorically that progress and progressivism is evil.” Birzer goes on in the same video to say progressives are “usually pretty stupid” and “Progressivism, by its very nature, cannot posit a just or dignified view of the human person.”

Reached via email, Birzer, who holds the school’s Amos Kirk Chair in History, said he does “not speak for the college, and my words are strictly my own.” He defended his statements, saying they need to be put in the context of his three-lecture indictment of early-20th-century progressivism. “I explain in great detail why progressive theory and the progressives themselves were deeply inhumane,” Birzer says in his email.

Davis, the Hillsdale spokeswoman, says that Birzer is “one of many” professors who teach the required American Heritage coursebut would not confirm that the video is from the course. Birzer’s comments, she says, are “a few statements” from his lectures, and urged people to watch them in full. Asked if Hillsdale endorses Birzer’s comments, Davis responded that the school “employs faculty with different viewpoints … upholds freedom of speech and promotes civil discussion.”

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The replica of Jefferson’s Monticello can be seen at center along Hall Hill Road in Somers. Hillsdale College intends to make the building the crown jewel of an educational facility.

Charm turns to hardball

In early 2019, Hillsdale rolled out its initial Somers proposal, dubbing it the Blake Center for Business, Ethics and Entrepreneurship. It would be a facility to host its adult-education seminars and lectures on the U.S. Constitution, American history, and free enterprise as well as to conduct training for both public and charter school teachers (the college helps run more than 20 charter schools nationwide). The approved center will encompass four abutting properties totaling about 100 bucolic acres on Hall Hill Road in Somers almost in Massachusetts, a part of town known as “millionaires’ row.” In addition to the Blakes, the families that founded the Big Y supermarket chain and the Breck hair care company once had estates there. The Blakes agreed to donate their 77-acre estate — Hillsdale takes possession on Jan. 1. The school paid $4.85 million for the other three properties, including $3 million for Monticello, which Blake sold at auction in 2016 to a private owner for $2.1 million, according to land records. Monticello will serve as the approximately 100-acre center’s learning and lecture facility.

Before publicly announcing the project, Hillsdale invited a delegation of town officials and the Blakes to the school in late 2018, says Selectman Keeney, a lawyer, former probate judge and longtime Somers politician who was representing the school at the time and helped organize the trip. Keeney was not a selectman at the time and stopped representing the school before joining the board, he says. 

The zoning commission was invited, but Town Attorney Carl Landolina told members not to go, according to a November 2018 email. 

Neighbors expressed concern about traffic, lighting and large crowds and also worried that the school might one day subdivide the property. But the biggest issue was that educational facilities are prohibited in the zone. 

The delegation toured the college, talked to students and met with school officials, including Arnn, its high-profile president. The school paid for the trip using frequent-flyer miles and the delegation was put up on school property, says Keeney, adding that he came away convinced that the school wanted to be a good neighbor to the community. “I was impressed that even though they were a small school, they had a very well-known reputation,” he says.

Hillsdale followed up in early 2019 with presentations to various town boards and commissions and public forums at which school officials talked about the school, explained its plans and answered questions. “We think the center can only be successful if it’s in concert with the community and maintaining good relations,” Hillsdale Chief of Staff Mike Harner told a packed crowd at a March 5, 2019, meeting that was recorded and posted on Facebook. That night, Harner promised listeners that the school would find a way to make up the $100,000 tax loss. “We’re going to figure out how to replace it,” he said. “It’s our intention to make sure that gap is addressed.” It was the first of at least four times over the coming year that the school said publicly that it or the Blakes would or would try to make up taxes; the next time by Walsh in a late December memo and again in a statement during the Jan. 6 public hearing — “The Blakes have committed to cover the tax gap either through an annual contribution and/or an endowment,” he said that night — and a final time by Harner, who was paraphrased in a March 5 article in the school newspaper as saying, ”the college would try to replace the lost revenue via direct payment to the town or reimbursement to the community.”

The proposal, meanwhile, ran into trouble. Neighbors expressed concern about traffic, lighting and large crowds and also worried that the school might one day subdivide the property. But the biggest issue was that educational facilities are prohibited in the zone. The school hung its hat on a proposed change that would allow the center. When that failed to materialize in late spring, the school dropped the proposal, which was never formally submitted. Many thought that was that.

But in the fall, Hillsdale returned with a new plan — and a new characterization of itself. When combined, they solved the zoning problem. Now the school was seeking to create the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom, which would focus on seminars and lectures about Christianity. The center would boast a full-time chaplain living on the property and a chapel — a second chapel in the basement of Monticello was later added to the proposal — where religious activities would occur on a regular basis.

In addition, the school began calling itself a Christian institution. That meant, the school’s lawyers argued, it could invoke the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is intended to protect churches and religious institutions from discriminatory land-use rules. From the get-go, the school’s lawyers argued that its status as a Christian institution and the religious activity at the chapels, which would not be open to the general public, all but compelled the town’s zoning commission to approve the project because houses of worship and religious institutions are allowed in the zone.

“Hillsdale’s Christian principles animate and characterize all of its activities, and its plans for the Somers properties are no exception,” Walsh, the college’s lead attorney, wrote in a 2019 memo to the commission. “The very name of the place — the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom — affirms that, in Connecticut as in Michigan, the ‘conspicuous aim’ of the college will remain to ‘teach by precept and example the essentials of the Christian faith and religion.’ ”

That Hillsdale was a religious institution was news to people in Somers. During its meetings with townspeople about its first proposal, school officials had not said that. Asked point blank at the March 2019 town hall what Hillsdale taught, Harner responded, “Individual liberty, personal responsibility, free enterprise and constitutional government.” The claim that the school is a religious institution irked many, who viewed it as an end-run around the town’s zoning rules, to the point that guffaws and murmurs flooded the hearing room when Walsh announced the new proposal at a packed Zoning Commission meeting in early December.

“I was [at earlier hearings] and they didn’t mention anything about religion,” says project opponent Andy Phillips, who as a member of the library board, heard a presentation of the original proposal from a Hillsdale representative. “This didn’t seem very ethical to me. It struck me as a spoiled child who didn’t get what they wanted and changed the rules.”

“They knew that the commission was not going to approve it,” resident Deanise Shewokis says. “So they said, ‘What can we do to get in there?’ They went the route of religion.”

Hillsdale’s former attorney, Keeney, acknowledges that the school changed how it characterized itself — he says he no longer represented them when they made that decision — in order to get its permit, but says the school’s history and curriculum justified the switch. “There’s nothing underhanded about what’s going on,” Keeney says. “The fact that Hillsdale has cloaked itself as a Christian institution is most accurate. That’s what they are, even though that’s not what they said in the beginning.”

Asked by Connecticut Magazine why the school, if it is a Christian institution, didn’t say so from the start, spokeswoman Davis cites the school’s history and repeats arguments it put forth for its second proposal.

Hillsdale’s approach to the town changed from congenial to confrontational. In place of friendly, accommodating school officials like Harner, the school brought in Walsh, a young, fast-rising conservative legal star from Wisconsin who, in addition to clerking for Scalia, was named by Forbes to its “30 Under 30: Law and Policy” list in 2017. Walsh, a Hillsdale graduate, cut his teeth as Wisconsin’s chief deputy solicitor general defending the state’s voter ID and other controversial laws passed during GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s deeply divisive administration. Now in private practice, Ryan earlier this year represented Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature in their successful effort to prevent wider use of absentee ballots in the state’s April primary because of the coronavirus pandemic, an action condemned by Democrats as attempted voter suppression. 

Lawsuit threat escalates battle

Walsh, who declined to be interviewed for this story, referring all questions to Hillsdale, wielded RLUIPA like a club throughout the proceeding. What makes the statute especially effective, intimidating and controversial is an unusual provision requiring defendants to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees if they lose — potentially costing municipalities hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars if they unsuccessfully defend denials in court. At the end of January in the midst of the public-hearing process, Walsh threw down the gauntlet. Fearing “decisions adverse to the college” and complaining about questions commissioners and their lawyers were asking, he sent the commission a letter saying the school was preparing to sue it, its members and the town under RLUIPA in both federal and state court and demanding they save all their records and communications. The college retained Detroit lawyer Daniel P. Dalton, who specializes in RLUIPA litigation and attended the Feb. 3 public hearing during which Walsh introduced him to the commission, court records and meeting minutes show.

During one public hearing, Walsh went so far as to imply the commission could not probe the validity of Hillsdale’s position that it is a religious institution — the central issue in the school’s application. Doing so would amount to accusing the college of “perpetrating a fraud,” Walsh said. “I sure hope that is not the suggestion in this proceeding,” he told the commission in a solemn voice. “I hope not, but it sounds like that is the line of inquiry the commission is pursuing. I would ask you, please don’t throw into doubt our sincerely held religious beliefs.”

But Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor, attorney and nationally recognized expert on RLUIPA, says it was “ridiculous” for Walsh to have suggested the law prevented the commission from looking into the sincerity of Hillsdale’s claim to be a religious institution.

During one public hearing, Walsh went so far as to imply that to probe the validity of Hillsdale’s position that it is a religious institution would amount to accusing the college of “perpetrating a fraud.”

A leading and longtime critic of RLUIPA who has testified before Congress on the law, Hamilton says the statute’s requirement that municipalities pay applicants’ legal fees if they lose gives religious groups an unfair advantage in getting projects approved, contrary to the intention of the First Amendment. The law, she says, is widely abused to get around local land-use laws and invoked so often that lawyers have built lucrative practices on it.

“This is a money maker,” says Hamilton, who clerked for retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “Builders and people with projects will go out of their way to try to characterize something as religious in order to get the benefit of RLUIPA. The way it operates is that [applications] go on for years, and the local jurisdictions don’t want to invest millions of dollars in this kind of lawsuit and neither do their insurers. These cases almost always settle in some shape or form.”

Asked to comment on Hamilton’s criticisms of RLUIPA, Hillsdale spokeswoman Davis responded that they did not apply to the school’s Somers application. “Hillsdale is not in a position to speculate about other applications and how they are affected by RLUIPA,” she says.

Davis calls Hamilton’s comments “a rather extreme position and fortunately not the current state of the law in our country.”

Friends in high places

Hillsdale’s uncompromising promotion of conservative ideals has made it a favorite of right-wing businessmen, politicians, journalists and opinion makers. Vice President Pence gave the school’s commencement address in 2018, in which he called it “a beacon of liberty and American ideals,” and made a second appearance there last year. Justice Thomas spoke at the dedication of the school’s chapel last year and was the 2016 commencement speaker, while his wife, Ginni, has served on the school’s board of trustees and for a time ran its Washington, D.C., facility. The billionaire Van Andel family, co-owners and co-founders of the Amway business empire (the school named its new Washington, D.C., graduate school of government after former Amway Chairman Steve Van Andel, who sits on its board) is a major supporter, along with many lesser-known wealthy businessmen.

The school’s connections reach into the top echelons of the federal government. President Donald Trump reportedly considered school President Arnn for secretary of education before choosing Betsy DeVos, whose family is also an Amway owner and major Hillsdale donor and whose brother,Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private military company Blackwater, attended the school. The school added some star power last year, naming Sajak chairman of its board of trustees.

In an illustration of Hillsdale’s pull in D.C., Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully in 2017 to exempt it from a new federal tax on higher education endowments of $500 million or more. The school has grown even more influential and ambitious during the Trump era, prompting Politico to headline a 2018 article on Hillsdale “The College that Wants to Take Over Washington.” According to press reports, many of its alumni have ended up in Trump’s administration, including speech writers for the president and Pence, and Arnn has openly embraced Trump, a position that has caused some controversy at the school.

Flush with donations, the school is expanding rapidly. In the last 18 months, it has opened the Steve and Amy Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C., dedicated its new chapel, introduced new online courses, including a U.S. history course specifically designed to counter The New York Times’ 1619 Project — in an email to supporterslast spring,Arnn called the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on racism in the U.S. “fake history” — and kicked off a fundraising campaign with a $600 million goal. An aim of the “Four Pillars” campaign, according to co-chairs Sajak and Van Andel, is to further spread the school’s ideas beyond campus.

The school’s connections reach into the top echelons of the federal government. President Donald Trump reportedly considered school President Arnn for secretary of education.

“Our country needs Hillsdale College now more than ever, which is why Hillsdale has adopted the strategy of radiating what occurs on its campus as far and wide, and to as many citizens, as possible,” the pair say in a statement on the campaign’s website.

How the Somers center fits into these ambitious plans and what happens next is unclear. As of mid-August, the center had no opening date or schedule of events, Hillsdale spokeswoman Davis says.

The zoning commission repeatedly pressed Hillsdale to be more specific on how it would use the facility, with mixed results. In addition to restricting the number of seminars, lectures and training sessions, the commission required the school to submit a yearly report of activities at the center. Pressed, Walsh at times seemed to suggest that most but not all events would focus on religion, while at other times saying all activity would be religiously related. Asked to clarify, spokeswoman Davis says that the college’s Christian ethos will be “central to” and “imbue” the center, with all events having “explicit and implied religious themes.” 

“The Blake Center for Faith and Freedom will extend the college’s educational mission to the Somers community,” she says.

The “great majority” of the center’s training for public and charter school teachers, meanwhile, “will discuss the relationship between regulation and religion in America and the world,” Davis says. Davis did not rule out Hillsdale using the center to market its Barney Charter School Initiative in Connecticut, saying the center “will promote Hillsdale College and its programs broadly.” 

Hillsdale, Davis says, “has no plans” to one day turn the center into a campus but instead intends to use it “as described to the community in its proposal.”

Critics will be keeping a close watch, says resident and project critic Levesque. “We’ll see how religious they are,” she says. “I’m sure there will be people that will be watching them, including the zoning board. I have friends who I know are going to be very diligent about it.”

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Hillsdale College intends to make the replica of Jefferson’s Monticello the centerpiece of an educational facility in Somers.

‘A delicious irony’

At the first public hearing in December, Walsh called Thomas Jefferson “the man of the hour” and read quotes from him praising Christianity and supporting freedom of religion. “We think it’s particularly appropriate that we use this property, Monticello, in particular, given Thomas Jefferson’s views,” Walsh said.

Hamilton, the RLUIPA expert and critic, strongly disagrees, saying Jefferson would be “turning in his grave” to learn that the law is being used to leverage approval of a religious center in a replica of his home. That’s because Jefferson, she says, believed strongly that religious entities should receive no special treatment from the government, which RLUIPA effectively bestows on them.

Hamilton also points out that Jefferson, while a great admirer of Jesus’ teachings, had highly unconventional views on religion, including rejection of all the miracles in the Bible, such as the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, something confirmed by John Ragosta, an expert on Jefferson and religion at Monticello in Virginia. “Nobody today or in those days would have considered him a traditional Christian,” Ragosta says. Jefferson spent his later years cutting up the Bible to make his own version sans the miracles, Hamilton notes. The official website for Monticello in Virginia devotes an entire page to what is known as “the Jefferson Bible.”

“The groups that are for RLUIPA, many of them routinely trash Jefferson and the concept of separation of church and state,” Hamilton says. She adds that a religious center in a replica of his home with a chapel in the basement would be “a delicious irony.”

This article appears in the September 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.