On November 14, 1995, Robert C. “Bob” Nusbaum, Esq. wrote a letter to then Virginia Wesleyan President Billy Greer. In the letter, Mr. Nusbaum writes, “I venture to guess that more persons have been slaughtered in the name of religion than from any other cause… In this continuing saga of man’s inhumanity to man, the one bright light that goes beyond mere tolerance is Jefferson’s Statue for Religious Freedom. It laid the foundation for the First Amendment, and has served as a beacon for all enlightened constitutions ever since… “ That insightful letter sparked the beginnings of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan University.
The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom (CSRF) was launched in the fall of 1996 through the efforts of a diverse group of supporters from Virginia Wesleyan and the larger community.
The Center's first full-time director, Dr. Catharine Cookson (1998 – 2004), brought together campus and community in engaging and meaningful partnerships. She created a “safe-zone” where practitioners of all faiths could trust that religious issues and community controversies could be addressed in a fair and impartial manner. She served until her death in 2004. In 2005, a memorial Peace Garden, located just outside the Center offices on the Virginia Wesleyan campus, was dedicated in her honor. The annual Cookson Religious Freedom Endowed Lectureship was also established in her honor.
The challenge of the Center is so immense because the issue is a timeless issue. We’re dealing with public perceptions and pressures and what neighbors do to each other out of fear.
Dr. Paul Rasor, served as the Joan P. and Macon F. Brock Jr., Director of the Center from 2005 – 2014. Dr. Rasor focused on developing resources for the Center, specifically through building a collection of books that focus on religious freedom and developing funds for lectureships. A collection of over 2,000 volumes is housed in the Virginia Wesleyan Hofheimer Library. The collection emphasizes topics related to the mission that include constitutional law, religious freedom and church-state relations, religion and law, the role of religion in public and political life, and the global dimensions of religious freedom, including international human rights. It also includes books on world religions, theology and religious studies, philosophy, history, and education, and other topical areas.
Principles such as religious freedom are not self-defining. They carry only the meaning we give them.
At the start of the fall 2014 semester, the Center welcomed Dr. Craig Wansink (Joan P. and Macon F. Brock Jr., Director), Ms. Kelly Jackson (Associate Director) and Dr. Eric Mazur (Center Fellow for Religion, Law, and Politics). We envision the Center as a hub for the campus and broader community. A place where everyone, through civil discussions about difficult issues, learns the skills they need to be effective agents of change in their own communities, and in the world.
The greatest challenges that face the world are trans-religious. The goal of the CSRF is to equip individuals to be leaders and citizens who understand how the reconciliation of religious differences creates meaningful opportunities for civil solutions to difficult and urgent problems.
- Craig Wansink