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“Expansion of the Institute for Religious Liberty” Presented by Raymond Hebert, Ph.D.

Awarded a President’s Faculty Innovation Grant as a faculty-driven research/project. 

Abstract: The Institute for Religious Liberty (IRL) at Thomas More University is beginning the fourth year of its existence. The original intention was to have one major spring-time event per year. In 2017-2018, a second major event was added in the fall as an Interfaith Dialogue. Looking to the future, the IRL Executive Committee and TMU administration have agreed that an expansion would be welcomed, including a continuation of the fall semester Interfaith Dialogue as a permanent addition. This innovation grant allowed Hebert to personally interview every member of the Executive Committee and to visit three of the most active Religious Liberty/Freedom Institutions in the country: the Cato Institute and Religious Freedom Center, both in Washington, D.C., and the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While these networking opportunities will pay dividends for fundraising and program planning, the most important focus for the grant was not on fundraising but on the best ways to involve students, with the idea emerging to create a Junior Fellows Program. This particular direction will, along with the expansion of programming, become a priority during the 2018-2019 academic year. 

Expansion of the Institute for Religious Liberty:

The Summer 2018 Faculty Innovation grant was, in my estimation, a total success. My original plan, while contemplating how the IRL could expand, was to do the following:

  1. Interview each member of the expanded Executive Committee individually to ask for their ideas/hopes.When they agreed to join this new, expanded committee, what were their expectations? What can the IRL do better as it moves forward? I interviewed in person each of the following:
  • Acting President Kathleen Jagger
  • Rabbi Gary Zola
  • Joan Robinson
  • Brett Greenhalgh
  • Aaron Bludworth
  • Jackie Congedo
  • J. Schaeffer

Bob Sathe was away for the summer but I had talked to him previously as the Chair of the William T. Robinson III fundraiser Committee (for naming the IRL after this founder). All agreed that the “Interfaith Dialogue” should become an annual fall event and that the idea for “Juniors Fellows” is worth pursuing and that the plans for this year’s events have met their expectations. Several also added that it is crucial that we continue to find ways to involve more audience members from the community. Ideas for improving our marketing strategy were also shared and will be discussed, along with the 2018-2019 implementation of a “Juniors Fellows” program, at our first fall Executive Committee meeting in late October.

  1. Trips to Washington D.C. and Grand Rapids, Michigan to visit the three leading Religious Liberty Freedom Institutes in the country.In two consecutive weeks during late July/ early August, I travelled to the Cato Institute and Religious Freedom Center in Washington D.C. and the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In each case I met with a minimum of three representatives. My hosts were Ilya Shapiro (Cato), Kristen Looney (RFC) and David Milroy (Acton). In each case I or we (when Robyn Hoffman, VP of Institutional Advancement or/ and Acting President Kathleen Jagger were with me), the idea of collaboration was well received. In each case it was agreed that they would help us obtain speakers. Three ideas for future programs were discussed as well:
  • The “Philosophy and History of Religious Liberty”
  • “Religion and Education. The Constant Battle Ground” (or in a related topic “religious literacy in the schools”
  • “Public Accommodation: What are the Limits”

In the case of the Acton Institute, I was invited to attend the Acton University during June, 2019 and each of the three Institutes indicated an interest in having Thomas More College students apply for summer, 2019 internships with them.

  1. The most enthusiastic support from both our own IRL Executive Committee members and the Institute Representatives was in favor of the idea of creating “Junior Fellows” from among our student body while delaying the creation of “Senior Fellows”.Attached is a preliminary look at what such a program could entail along with the encouragement that our “Junior Fellows” consider applying for the summer internships offered by the Religious Freedom Center, Acton Institute and Koch Foundation.

The final point I had hoped to pursue was the idea for a Religious Liberty Seminar (1 Credit) for the “Junior Fellows. Although it was agreed that this has potential, it was believed that the “Juniors Fellows” would need to be established first so these students could have input into the nature of the Seminar. I agree with that conclusion and well begin conversations with the administration about a selection process for the “Junior Fellows” Program during spring 2019 and possibly the addition of a “scholarship” piece to make it attractive to the students. The criteria should be finalized by November 1 with a selection in the spring (for 10-15 students) so that the program for juniors and possibly sophomores would begin in fall, 2019. The scholarship aspect will be presented to Chris Powers, the Vice President for Enrolment Management, for his consideration.

In reflecting back on the experience, I believe that the primary gains were as follows:

  1. Getting to know each member of the IRL Executive Committee better while appreciating the depth and intensity of their commitment. I also came away convinced that perhaps adding a faculty and student representative would be a good idea?
  2. Visiting the Institutes was an excellent idea with results being much more positive than I could have imagined. The representatives were all, without exception, as helpful and encouraging as they could be. This will be particularly valuable in helping us line up our preferred national-level speakers and also provide an inside track for our students who might be interested in applying for paid summer internships.
  3. The excitement about a “Junior Fellows” Program was universal. Since we are an Institute at a College, all agreed that the IRL’s success could not be complete without the involvement of our own students. This will now become the #1 priority for the fall with the emphasis on the process for the “Junior Fellows” Program. All in all, this was a wonderful experience and I thank the administration and the selection committee for their confidence in me.