Statement by Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
President Barack Obama’s proclamation yesterday calling Jan. 16 “Religious Freedom Day” garnered favorable attention for explicitly recognizing “atheists and agnostics” as equal to believers:
Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.
Obama’s inclusion of nonbelievers is laudable, as well as his issuance of a proclamation recognizing the anniversary of adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, and enacted Jan. 16, 1786.
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, we would have wished that Obama’s proclamation had also emphasized the secular component embodied in the Statute for Religious Freedom as much as the “freedom to believe” aspect. There is no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent, as we continually point out at FFRF.
Jefferson was so proud of his historic statute that he had his authorship of it engraved on his tombstone. (Serving as the third president of the United States, by the way, didn’t rate Jefferson’s mention.)
The statute was first introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 and followed a decade of work to disestablish the Church of England as the official church of the colony of Virginia. Quakers there were persecuted, heresy was a capital offense punishable by burning, and anyone who denied the “being of God” or the Trinity, etc., could be punished on first offense by removal from many kinds of employment. Second offense meant loss of most civil rights and incarceration.
Jefferson noted in his book “Notes On Virginia”: “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. . . . Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet have we not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”
The preamble of the Statute for Religious Freedom is a sweeping indictment of state-dictated religion, noting that “false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time” have been maintained through the church-state.
“[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical . . . . Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”
Many of the individual state constitutions replicate or echo the heart of the statute, which reads:
“[T]hat no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested.”
However, we’re sorry to report that some people are “blasphemously” misusing Jefferson’s “Religious Freedom Day” to advance theocracy. For instance, an evangelical outfit called World Changers of Florida has chosen Jan. 16, the statute’s anniversary, to distribute bibles in some public schools in Florida. Over FFRF’s objections, the school district in Orange County renewed permission for these evangelists to “passively” distribute bibles in 11 public schools yesterday.
FFRF sued over the censorship of many FFRF materials when we attempted a similar “passive” distribution last spring. Our litigation continues in federal court.
Jefferson famously cut up the New Testament in order to distinguish “diamonds in a dunghill.” He disbelieved in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. It adds insult to injury to subvert Jefferson’s anti-theocratic statute and the anniversary of its adoption as an excuse to inject New Testaments into our schools.