Religious Freedom Day: For A Real Celebration, Go To The Source

Celebrating Religious Freedom Day in houses of worship is a great idea.

Jan. 16 is Religious Freedom Day. As American holidays go, this one tends to be overlooked. It's not even listed on my desk calendar.

That's a shame, because Religious Freedom Day commemorates an important event: passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This landmark legislation, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and maneuvered through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, became law on Jan. 16, 1786. Scholars consider it a precursor to the First Amendment and a vital step along the way to securing the separation of church and state.

Here's something else that's a shame: Groups that don't support the spirit of Jefferson's law are attempting to co-opt Religious Freedom Day. Gateways to Better Education and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) are urging churches to celebrate "Religious Freedom Sunday" this year.

It sounds nice in concept, but I know from experience that both Gateways and the ADF have an unusual interpretation of "religious freedom." For them, it means mainly the freedom to use government institutions and tax funds to ram their narrow version of fundamentalist Christianity down everyone else's throat.

Gateways is notorious for its unsolicited advice to public schools about how to handle religion. The group plays fast and loose with the facts, advising teachers on ways to slip fundamentalist Christianity into the lesson plans. My favorite was a Gateways pamphlet a few years ago featuring a talking Easter Bunny who comes to a public school to advise a teacher on how she can teach kids about the resurrection of Jesus.

As for the ADF, that outfit – which was founded by a bevy of far-right TV and radio preachers – has a long record of hostility toward the separation of church and state. You can read more about the group and its agenda here.

Celebrating Religious Freedom Day in houses of worship is a great idea. But rather than look to these bashers of the church-state wall, religious leaders would do better to consult more sources that respect and treasure Jefferson's vision. For example, pastors could read from the Virginia Statute itself. It's not too long, but its words are powerful and eloquent.

Jefferson and Madison were the architects of this important legislation, so why not find out what they said about religious liberty and church-state separation? AU has resources for both.

And if you want to know how public schools should deal with religion, there's no need to listen to a giant, talking rabbit. Get a copy of AU's new book Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents' Legal Rights. You can download it here for free.

One more thought on this: Jefferson considered the Virginia Statute one of his greatest accomplishments. His grave marker at Monticello notes that Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia and wrote the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. (I hear he was also president, by the way.)

Jefferson was in France serving as U.S. ambassador when Madison guided the bill through the legislature. Madison wrote to Jefferson to report that efforts had been made to limit the statute's protections to Christians only but that they had failed.

Jefferson rejoiced. In his autobiography, he noted that the effort to curtail the bill's reach had failed "by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination."

I have to wonder what Religious Right groups, who claim the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" and frequently portray the Founders as Jerry Falwells in powdered wigs, think about that?