WASHINGTON — The Baptist Joint Committee’s newly-renovated Center for Religious Liberty will be a “great leap forward” in advancing the agency’s mission to defend and extend religious liberty, its executive director said during an Oct. 1 reception to unveil the facility.
The $3.28 million renovation of the BJC’s headquarters on Capitol Hill — a sleek combination of light wood, glass and interactive technology — balances the needs of staff with the goal of educating visitors about Baptists’ commitment to religious liberty and separation of church and state, said Brent Walker.
“The 50 percent increase in size will allow us to accommodate larger and more frequent groups from churches, schools, colleges and seminaries and to do remote teaching-learning projects through state-of-the-art communication technology with many more people,” he said.
For decades, the 76-year-old advocacy group has leased space in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Building, across the street from the Supreme Court and two blocks from the Capitol. The renovation transformed a warren of small cubicles and narrow hallways into an open, well-lit office suite.
At the heart of the redesign is the Baugh-Walker Conference Room with a view of both the Supreme Court and the Capitol dome, and a 70-inch interactive video screen for educational projects. Surrounding it are expanded office space for staff and visiting scholars, a library and a gallery which highlights the history and mission of the BJC.
The center’s ceiling is bisected diagonally by a lighted soffit pointing toward the nearby institutions of government. “It’s a visible reminder of our mission, aiming a prophetic arrow to the Supreme Court and Congress and beyond to the culture at large,” said Walker. “That feature and others were born in the imagination of our designers.”
The unveiling was held in conjunction with the fall meeting of the BJC’s board of directors, which approved a new staff position to coordinate the agency’s educational activities. Filling the spot will depend on additional funding, Walker said.
In brief remarks at the reception, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer described freedom of religion as the foundation of all other liberties. Breyer, who has served on the court since 1994, has been a “consistent voice both for religious expression and against government establishment of religion,” said Hollyn Hollman, the BJC’s general counsel, who introduced him.
“I know the Baptists,” Breyer said. “You have been fighting for these principles for a long time.”
Breyer encouraged the BJC to continue its long practice of filing friend-of-the-court briefs in religious liberty cases. The Supreme Court hears about 80 cases a year, he said, and “when you file briefs, it helps.”
“This is a good cause and you’re very helpful at it.”
Earlier, at a dedication service which featured communion in the new conference room, Washington pastor Jeffrey Haggray said, “Religious freedom is so foundational and central to the Christian faith that in every generation we must rededicate ourselves to its preservation and propagation.”
“These convictions are inherent in the Christian faith, and as Baptists we seek to uphold and to further these principles throughout the world,” said Haggray, pastor of First Baptist Church in Washington. "Also, by the grace and providence of God, combined with the vigilance and sacrifices of blood, sweat and tears on the part of many Baptists in the earliest beginnings of this nation, religious freedom was enshrined not only in our culture, but also in our constitution.”
A fundraising campaign launched in 2005 for the renovation drew support from more than 650 contributors, said Walker, all of whom are listed on a wall near the center’s entrance. Significant donors included the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation of San Antonio, Texas, and Austin, Texas, philanthropist Patsy Ayres, both of whom issued matching-gift challenges.
The BJC is supported financially by both the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, as well as congregations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia.
Additional photos are posted on the Herald's Facebook page.
Robert Dilday ([email protected]) is managing editor of the Religious Herald.