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Located in southeastern Virginia, just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Wesleyan University is Coastal Virginia’s premier university of the liberal arts and sciences. Situated on a 300-acre park-like campus in Virginia Beach, the University annually enrolls approximately 1,600 students in undergraduate, graduate and online programs.
Coastal Virginia is also home to an ethnically and religiously diverse population of more than 1.6 million, as well as to major military installations. The rich religious diversity is reflected by a New Age religious organization with international impact, the Association for Research and Enlightenment, at one end, while at the other end of the spectrum is Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and the 700 Club. The region is also home to at least 8 Buddhist communities, 8 Muslim Mosques or Masjids, and Hindu and Sikh Temples. There are Jewish communities representing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism, and a wide range of Christian traditions, all of which offer a wealth of opportunities to connect the study of religious freedom with practical and transformative learning experiences and the laboratory of opportunities here.
Since its inception in 1996, the Center has brought individuals and communities into deep and meaningful dialogue about the most important values in society. The Center is grounded in Virginia Wesleyan’s commitment to a rigorous liberal arts education and its United Methodist heritage, which has long recognized religious freedom as a basic human right.
The Center aims to create a civil society through education, respectful dialogue, and mutual understanding. It is dedicated to equipping students, and members of the broader community, to be leaders and citizens who understand how the reconciliation of religious differences creates meaningful opportunities for civil solutions to difficult and urgent problems.
Vision 2020: Through high-impact learning experiences, the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom informs, transforms, and equips individuals to be engaged leaders and citizens, as they increasingly understand why religious freedom is a basic human right of daily significance.
Mission: The Center INFORMS by providing students with a nuanced understanding of religious freedom as a basic human right; TRANSFORMS by engaging students in high-impact learning experiences that shape their perspectives on religious freedom; and EQUIPS by teaching the skills needed to recognize fundamental differences between people, to combat religious intolerance, and to find ways for society to mediate and work through substantive challenges towards meaningful solutions.
Initiatives: Center activities include mediation training, intergenerational dialogue, peace literacy, study away opportunities, and world-renowned speakers. Initiatives also include the NEXUS Interfaith Dialogue Series, the Life Matters series, and town hall discussions, along with events and speakers that confront timely issues involving religion, law, politics, race, and sexuality.
Each year, the Center engages students and the broader community in a variety of initiatives that not only educate minds, but also touch hearts, and strives to strengthen individuals to be agents of change and transform communities.
The Center does not advocate any particular political or religious perspective, but does stand for principles of dialogue, liberty, and engaged citizenship.
The Wesleyan Connection
The Center makes sense in VIRGINIA. Since the late 1700s, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom has shaped Hampton Roads, even making Norfolk an attractive draw to Moses and Eliza Myers, the region’s first permanent Jewish residents. In more recent years, the religious diversity of Hampton Roads has become increasingly striking. Virginia is a very appropriate place to think about religious freedom.
The Center makes sense because of the WESLEYAN in Virginia Wesleyan University. Religious freedom has long been part of the Wesleyan tradition. The United Methodist Church recognizes religious freedom as a basic human right for persons of all faiths. The Church’s social principles support the separation of church and state and strongly condemn all forms of religious intolerance. In 2004 the United Methodist Church passed a specific resolution on religious liberty noting that “The United Methodist Church declares religious liberty, the freedom of belief, to be a basic human right. Religious liberty includes the freedom to doubt or to deny the existence of God, and to refrain from observing religious practices. . . Our members have an obligation to speak out on behalf of those for whom such freedoms are denied.”
The Center makes sense because we are a LIBERAL ARTS institution. Although there are institutes like Baylor University’s J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and Washington University’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, VWU—as a liberal arts community—is able to leverage the entire college experience in bringing students to recognize the importance of religious freedom.