By Ken Frank
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Each year in January our community holds a ceremony commemorating religious freedom in America. My wife and I have attended several of these memorials over the years. They are celebrated here because it was in January, 1777 that Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, George Wythe and Thomas Ludwell Lee met at Weedon’s Tavern in Fredericksburg, Virginia to discuss and eventually draft The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Only six months earlier, the 13 American Colonies had declared independence from Britain.
After nine years of intensive debate, it was finally adopted by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786 and established the principle that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever ... nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions and beliefs...” Each year January 16 is officially proclaimed as Religious Freedom Day by annual statement from our President.
This Virginia statute inspired the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which was incorporated into the Bill of Rights in 1789. President James Madison and John Leland, Baptist preacher from Massachusetts, were also instrumental in this Virginia statute becoming a template for the first amendment of our Bill of Rights. Jefferson remarked that no nation could be governed without religion because religious belief - freely chosen and given wide public space - nurtured morality and thus supported a free society (The Free Lance-Star, January 13, 2002, Joseph Loconte) [emphases mine throughout].
Jefferson regarded the Virginia statute as one of the major accomplishments of his life. By his own request, the epitaph on his tombstone at Monticello makes note of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his founding of the University of Virginia and his writing Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom. But, surprisingly, this epitaph does not mention his presidency.
Robert Kravetz in The Free Lance-Star on January 14, 2006 wrote, “In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote that the modesty of changes made by the Virginia legislature gave ‘proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.’”
In 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in his address to the gathered public for this ceremony, said: “Government will not favor Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews. But the tradition was never that the government had to be neutral between religiousness and non-religiousness” (The Washington Post, Jacqueline L. Salmon, January 13, 2003). Salmon also wrote, “Court decisions forbidding mentions of God in public events, Scalia said, are the result of interpretations of the Constitution that are too elastic.”
At the 2007 ceremony, Virginia House Speaker, Bill Howell, told the crowd, “It is no mistake that the right to religious freedom is in the First Amendment ... Religious freedom preceded those other freedoms because, without it, no freedom can exist.” He also said the Statute of Religious Freedom gives us “the freedom of religion, not from religion” (The Free Lance-Star, Cathy Jett, January 15, 2007).
This year’s keynote speaker at the ceremony was Representative Rob Wittman, 1st District Congressman of Virginia. Of Jefferson, Wittman said, “He made it his life’s work to make sure we preserved our religious freedoms, and we understood the need for protecting our natural rights, those given to us by God (The Free Lance-Star, Dan Telvock, January 12, 2009).
We Americans take this precious and hard-won freedom for granted. This liberty enables the Living Church of God, as well as countless other ministries, to preach and publish their messages without interference from our governments. But this is not the case everywhere. In 2006, the International Christian Concern estimated 150,000 Christians around the globe were martyred that year! Others were raped, kidnapped or jailed. Their 2007 “Hall of Shame” report on the 10 nations that were the worst persecutors of Christians included North Korea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, China, Somalia, Vietnam and Pakistan (The Free Lance-Star, editorial, January 16, 2007.)
Let me encourage you to appreciate and benefit from this freedom by reading our magazine, Tomorrow’s World. Click Tomorrow’s World and witness our exercising this right.