Jefferson Hijacked!: Religious Right Seeks To Misuse Religious Freedom Day

Jan. 16 is "Religious Freedom Day," an occasion to commemorate the passage of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

The Statute is an eloquent indictment of government meddling in religion. Drafted by Jefferson 12 years before the ratification of the First Amendment's religion clauses, it laid the ground work for the separation of church and state we enjoy today.

Religious Right leaders, however, are trying to hijack Religious Freedom Day and use it as a way to push religion into public schools.

Gateways to Better Education, an anti-separation group associated with James Dobson and Charles Colson, has practically claimed the holiday as its own. It's published a Web site and a "guidebook" that encourages students and teachers to express their faith freely (i.e., without regard to the law) in class.

This guidebook is slick and carefully worded; it is meant to feed misinformation into the mainstream. But we know what this right-wing group is really up to.

President George W. Bush hasn't yet issued his 2008 Religious Freedom Day proclamation, but already Gateways' president Eric Buehrer, is bemoaning public schools for ignoring his idea of the day's purpose.

I will agree with Buehrer on this point alone: Public schools should celebrate religious freedom in America. That's where our agreement ends.

Gateways says in its guidebook that Religious Freedom Day is not "celebrate-our-diversity day." As a matter of fact, it should be a day to celebrate America's incredible diversity. Our nation includes some 2,000 different religious traditions and groups, as well as millions of Americans who follow no spiritual path at all. If the Religious Right has its way, however, Religious Freedom Day would spiral into "celebrate-our-Christian-heritage day."

Gateways' mission is to "help public school teachers teach Judeo-Christian history, thought, and values." The absence of the qualifier "about" after "teach" reveals a lot about Gateways' true agenda. Gateways isn't interested in teaching about religious liberty or offering objective instruction about religion's influence in American history and culture; it's interested in bringing its vision of Sunday School to your children's public schools.

The group's flagship project is the "Holiday Restoration Campaign," which helps Christian parents provide their children's public school teachers with lesson plans and (shoddy) legal advice for teaching about Christian holidays.

"Imagine," says the Web site, "your child's teacher teaching about the Virgin Birth, the worshipful wisemen, the heralding angels, and the death and resurrection of Christ."

This isn't the "freedom" Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote the Virginia Statute over 200 years ago. He envisioned a country where church and state are separate, where religious education isn't the government's responsibility, and where all people are free to worship – or not – how they choose.

I don't think Jefferson would appreciate his prized creation being hijacked for such nefarious – and constitutionally dubious – purposes, and I hope you'll stand up for his vision on Jan. 16.

I encourage you to write letters to the editor exposing the Religious Right's theocratic agenda and discuss religious freedom with your family and friends. And, above all, celebrate the separation of church and state.