It may be America's most important gift to the world. It began 220 years ago this week. Yet many Americans, it seems, still don't understand what it entails. It's the country's unique experiment in religious freedom, rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
As the first historic act in the experiment - the 1786 Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom - is celebrated in Richmond Wednesday, many see that lack of understanding as a challenge for the growing religious and ideological diversity in the United States.
"While Americans do count freedom of religion as one of our most precious rights," says Audrey Smith, acting director of the Council for America's First Freedom, in Richmond, "many citizens aren't sure how they exercise those rights, or what is not allowed under our Constitution."
A national survey by the council in October, for instance, revealed a deep ambivalence about a fundamental principle of religious freedom: the separation of church and state.
While 47 percent of those polled said it is important to keep the traditional principle, 27 percent said it should be less strictly interpreted, and 23 percent said "there is really no need to separate church and state."
"I think folks don't understand what that means," Ms. Smith says. The separation is what makes religious freedom possible.
Another popular misperception relates to religious freedom in public schools. In the 2005 State of the First Amendment poll, 50 percent of respondents said students have "too little religious freedom." Yet students are free to pray individually or in groups, to form religious clubs and publications, to express religious views in their school assignments, and wear religious messages on their clothing. Unfortunately, many educators are unfamiliar with those rights, though the government has issued guidelines.
"There is tremendous importance to educating people more deeply," says W. Cole Durham, Jr., a religious liberty expert at Brigham Young University law school in Provo, Utah. "This is an issue people care deeply about and want to understand. They relate to these ideals in terms of their practical experiences, and they'll have emotional reactions."
Just last week, for instance, in a case with broad implications for religious schools and US universities, Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, Calif., sued the University of California for refusing to give applicants credit for courses taught from a religious perspective. The university says it has the right to set academic standards; the school says the university discriminates against conservative Christian viewpoints.
Issues of religious freedom have become more visible and contentious in recent decades as faith groups push back against what they see as an oversecularization of American life. But the debates have become so heated, some say, because groups at the extremes - secular and religious - are most vociferous.
"The [founders'] idea of a secular state with neutrality toward religion emerged out of the need to keep warring religious factions in check," says Professor Durham. "It envisions a place where everyone is free to bring their ideas and distinct identities to the table." But a secular fundamentalism has developed with its own dogma, saying everything has to be secular. That, in turn, spurred a religious response, which also has its fundamentalist strain.
The shouting matches have helped give separation of church and state a bad reputation, says Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "There's been an effort over recent decades to persuade many conservative religious people that separation is not in the Constitution, and to undermine support for it."
In fact, some are vigorously promoting the idea among churches of a so-called "return to being a Christian nation."
Dr. Haynes, who advises schools on these issues, offers a vivid example of the misunderstanding found not just among Christians. "American Muslims often tell me how much they appreciate the freedom to practice Islam the way they want to, which they couldn't do in their native country even though it was a Muslim nation," he says. "But then they say, 'What is this nonsense about the separation of church and state - why do we need that?' They don't understand that's why they have their freedom.
"My sense is that the principle of separation, properly understood, would have wide support ... but the shouting matches have made it problematic," Haynes adds. "Yet another part of the population thinks it's the most critical concept we could have."
The Council for America's First Freedom has taken on the mission of promoting deeper understanding of religious freedom. Its educational efforts include a national essay contest in which 2,400 high school students from 48 states are participating this year.
At Wednesday's commemoration of the Virginia statute (and National Religious Freedom Day), the 2006 First Freedom Awards will be presented to extraordinary advocates for liberty in the US and abroad.
The international honoree is Vaclav Havel, playwright, former Czech president, and eloquent advocate for freedom of conscience. Mr. Havel promotes interfaith dialogue and the resolution of religious conflicts through his Forum 2000 and Shared Concern Initiative, which bring high-level leaders together on difficult challenges facing the world.
Rep. Chet Edwards (D) of Texas will receive the national award for his work in educating Congress and the public. The Virginia award will go to Robert S. Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond and author of influential books, including "School Prayer: The Court, the Congress, and the First Amendment."
But the Council's biggest plans involve building the First Freedom Center as a world-class museum, meeting place, and educational resource on religious freedom. Educators from across the US, Smith says, have emphasized their need for "accurate information without religious or political bias." Materials will be made available to schools and religious groups, including online.
No such resource exists in the US, Haynes says. "The potential is enormous for helping Americans have a better historical grounding in the First Amendment, and a better appreciation for why this bold yet fragile experiment is probably America's greatest contribution to world civilization."
"Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free..."
So begins the 1786 Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom, the first law of its kind in America. It's sometimes forgotten that in Colonial times, Baptists were flogged and Quakers were executed in Boston, Presbyterians were jailed and Jews were exiled in New York, and Anglicanism was pushed as the state church in Virginia.
Seeing religious freedom as essential as political liberty, Thomas Jefferson wrote the law and James Madison won its passage. Jefferson thought it so significant that he listed it among his three life accomplishments on his epitaph. (The others: writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.)
The Virginia law led to the first 16 words in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, making religious liberty the First Freedom: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
That double guarantee is usually described as the "establishment clause," applying to government, and the "free exercise clause," guaranteeing individual and collective rights.