Sunday, January 11, 2015

Writer's Notebook - 11 January 2015

Religious Freedom in the United States

The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was drafted 238 years ago in my town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was introduced to the Virginia legislature two years later and finally enacted into law in 1786. The statute formally separated church from state in Virginia and was the model for the First Amendment to the US Constitution (adopted in 1791).
Those who suggest that the principle of religious freedom allows citizens of the United States to choose a religion, but does not protect those who profess no religion whatsoever, should read the statute more carefully. The final paragraph makes clear that in the Commonwealth of Virginia, "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion". There is no requirement to select a religion.
The statute's echo in the First Amendment is slightly less clear and has been widely debated in the last two centuries. The First Amendment states,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That short passage guarantees six rights to US citizens and is the basis for many of the "rights" so often taken for granted:
  1. freedom from establishment of a national religion (the "establishment clause")
  2. freedom to freely exercise religious choice (the "free exercise clause")
  3. freedom of speech
  4. freedom of the press
  5. freedom to peacefully assemble
  6. freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom is celebrated annually in Fredericksburg. The Annual Fredericksburg Religious Freedom March and Celebration includes a march from the Fredericksburg train station to the statute's monument on Washington Avenue. Other events are generally held in the area. This year's events include a presentation by University of Mary Washington Professor Mary Beth Mathews, who will speak on the topic  "Religious Freedom: Always Approaching, Never Reaching".  There will be a presentation of awards for the three winners of the middle school Importance of Religious Freedom Essay Contest that was sponsored by the University of Mary Washington and Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason.

Quote of the Day

"Human beings are at one and the same time utterly splendid and utterly insignificant." -- James Robertson

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