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Religious Freedom Day

21 Jan 2007

The day slipped by so quietly that few seem to know that it even exists.  It did not receive any mainstream media coverage, probably because there were no lawsuits or other controversies surrounding it.  Still, on January 16, 2007, President George Bush followed the precedent of Clinton and the former Bush by proclaiming "Religious Freedom Day."  (The day was created by Congress in 1993; they requested that the President issue a proclamation.)

As noted in the Religious Freedom Day guidebook, available from the Religious Freedom Day website, the 16th of January is the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, originally authored by Thomas Jefferson.  [The private website is sponsored by Gateways to Better Education, which is an organization "dedicated to helping public schools teach Judeo-Christian history, thought, and values."]  The statute, which was intended to protect people against religious discrimination and eliminate a tax to support clergy, would eventually be reflected in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In his proclamation, the President said,

I call on all Americans to reflect on the great blessing of religious liberty, endeavor to preserve this freedom for future generations, and commemorate this day with appropriate events and activities in their schools, places of worship, neighborhoods, and homes.

Though announced by the President and at the heart of the continuing religious debate in America, Religious Freedom Day may have received little public press because rather than backing the in vogue "wall" between religion and government, it actually quietly supports the opposite.

Proponents of "the wall" include Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an organization that "protects religious liberty" by "protecting the separation of church and state."  The AU has garnered a reputation for agitating people in civil service who would profess an exclusive faith—including Armed Forces members—claiming in many cases that doing so unconstitutionally entangles government and religion or even 'establishes' a religion.   The AU holds Jefferson up as its veritable figurehead for his letter to the Danbury Baptists that originated the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" (January 1, 1802).  Though Jefferson's supposed politics are their foundation, the AU, too, said nothing of the significance of the day until they wrote a cursory blog on the day it occurred.

In their blog the AU noted that "scholars agree that the Virginia Statute had a profound effect on the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment and the course of church-state relations in America."  Ironically, and perhaps accidentally, the AU quoted part of the statute that intended to protect freedom of religious expression for government officials:

All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. [emphasis added]

Contrary to the claim the AU often makes, Jefferson did not envision a society where civil servants were prohibited from having, professing, or advocating a faith.  In fact, Jefferson himself began the celebrated "separation" statute with the atheistically and evolutionally insensitive phrase, "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free..." and, with a pluralistically inconsiderate phrase, indicated that God was the "Holy Author of our religion" [emphasis added].  Jefferson understood that religion was not to be excluded from government; rather, government was to be inclusive of religion.

Some have asserted that a professed faith detracts from a person's ability to serve in a 'secular' government or even disqualifies them for leadership, particularly when applied to the military.  Jefferson said that very concept was a violation of a person's natural rights:

Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; therefore proscribing any citizen as unworthy of the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right. [emphasis added]

It was not Jefferson's original intent that an elected official be prevented from swearing-in on a Koran.  Likewise, it was not his intent that people in government service have their religious beliefs silenced in order to keep their religion and their civil service separate.  There should be (and is no) 'religious test' for public office, either positive or negative.  Jefferson envisioned an environment in which people were free to profess their religious opinions—whatever they were—and the fact that they had made such a profession should not detract from or otherwise affect their contributions to government service.

The greatest concern in Jefferson's time was a return to the English model of government supervision of religion.  The Virginia Statute was written to address the concerns of those who had to pay to support clergy with whom they had moral disagreements—reminiscent of the British church system.  The letter to the Danbury Baptists—upon which much of the current religious liberty discussion is based—was written not to assert that religion must stay out of government, but to reassure Connecticut Baptists that the government would not interfere with their religious liberties.  [The Danbury Baptist Association had expressed concern that religious liberties were a "government favor" rather than an "inalienable right."  Jefferson assured them that the First Amendment guaranteed that the government would not impede on their religious liberties.  Both letters can be viewed on this open source.]

Some self-proclaimed "protectors" of religious liberty seem to think that citizens have a right to be protected from exposure to potentially offensive faiths.  Jefferson did not intend to implicate an inalienable right to freedom from religion.  Those that would seek to silence religious expression in public should take note, that, as Jefferson said, "truth is great and will prevail if left to herself....  [She] has nothing to fear…unless by human interposition [she is] disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate...."  Free argument and open debate—even on religious topics—are not the enemy of democracy.  They are its foundation.

Religious Freedom Day presents an opportunity to remind people that religious liberties are at the heart of the American culture, as noted in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson indicated that our religious freedoms are natural rights and basic civil liberties.  President Bush declared that we "reject religious bigotry in every form," which includes bigotry against religion in general.  Instead, he says we should "maintain the vitality of a pluralistic society," or one in which numerous distinct groups are present and tolerated.  No faith should be elevated, but neither should a faith be denigrated.  Eliminating the ability of public officials, including military servicemembers, to have public sectarian religious expression is inconsistent with Jefferson's founding intent, the Constitution, and basic civil liberties.  Disagree though we may with the tenets of another's faith (or lack thereof), we should endeavor to preserve the freedom we have as Americans to possess and profess our religious beliefs.  Remembering Religious Freedom Day may be more important than we realize.

God and Country

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