US celebrates its most misread freedom
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.