Legal Feature


Religious Freedom Day



January 16, 2006

By Rita Dunaway

If you think that threats to religious freedom are a thing of the past in this country, consider the experiences of some of the youngest members of our society. Kindergartners are reprimanded for saying a quiet prayer before eating lunch. Elementary students are told that they may not choose contemporary Christian songs to "lip sync" as part of a classroom contest. High school students are forced to go to federal court to defend the right of their religious clubs to meet on school property.

By presidential proclamation, January 16th is Religious Freedom Day. We Virginians should be particularly proud to observe this day, inasmuch as it commemorates the anniversary of what Thomas Jefferson considered to be one of the single greatest accomplishments of his life: Virginia's Statute For Religious Freedom.

As Jefferson labored to perfect the elegant phrases that constitute this Statute, the relationship between government and religion was one that could scarcely be imagined by modern Americans. In Jefferson's experience, the primary threat to religious freedom was undoubtedly the existence among the laws of each of the colonial governments of various forms of religious compulsion. Participation in government, and even the enjoyment of "civil rights," in many cases, was conditioned upon adherence to some form of Protestant Christianity. This, Jefferson knew, was not only a form of tyranny, but merely led to false religion anyway.

The Statute Jefferson authored thus forbade the state to compel people to frequent or support any religion. Rather, the law declared "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." This, Jefferson explained, was more than an ordinary legislated right; it was "one of the natural rights of mankind."

The threat to religious freedom in modern America looks vastly different than in Jefferson's day. Today, true religious freedom is threatened by overzealous and completely misplaced efforts to eliminate all meaningful discussion of religious ideas from public settings--especially schools.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would be outraged if they saw how students are silenced as they endeavor to speak about their faith to their classmates or in response to homework assignments. These heroes of civil liberty would hang their heads in despair upon realizing that these offenses against religious freedom are frequently motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the very laws that were drafted to remove government interference from the shoulders of the faithful--not to spawn more of it.

Recognizing the fact that religious freedom is increasingly under attack in our nation's schools, the U.S. Department of Education has published guidelines in an effort to clarify students' religious liberties. For example, did you know that students may pray and read scriptures in school when not engaged in school activities or instruction, subject only to the same rules applied to non-religious reading? Did you know that students who wish to organize prayer groups or religious clubs must be given the same access to school facilities as other non-curricular groups? And finally, did you know that students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on its religious content?

Do the students in our community know this? Teachers should commemorate Religious Freedom Day by informing students of the priceless blessing of religious liberty. For ideas about how to do this, visit www.religiousfreedomday.com. Some of the website's suggestions include reading the presidential proclamation of Religious Freedom Day, having students write papers about what religious freedom means to them, reviewing copies of the Department of Education's guidelines on students' religious liberties, or talking about countries where religious freedom is not allowed.

It is essential that our nation's students understand their civil rights. Free people cannot enjoy their liberty if they still believe themselves to be chained. The misguided acts of those in authority have often given students the false impression that they are chained. Now is the time to teach the truth.

Rita Dunaway is Education Counsel for The Rutherford Institute.