Thomas Jefferson wanted only three of his many accomplishments noted on his grave’s headstone, and one of them was his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Many Americans aren’t so familiar with this document, which Jefferson drafted in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1777 – but they should be. The statute declared that Virginians could not be forced to pay taxes to or support a church against their will and guaranteed freedom of worship for all faiths. It had the effect of ending the official establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia and codified the idea of religious freedom as an essential human right.
The statute, which became law in Virginia in 1786, is considered the forerunner of the First Amendment. It’s a pretty big deal because without it we might not have church-state separation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Given the importance of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the anniversary of its signing is commemorated in Fredericksburg with “Religious Freedom Day,” an annual parade and celebration sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
Religious Freedom Day sounds great, right? Not when the Knights of Columbus are involved. This year’s celebration, which took place Jan. 12, featured a proclamation by Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw as well as an invocation given by the Rev. Don Rooney of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church, and a benediction delivered by the Rev. Robert Koehler of Redeemer Lutheran Church. The event was even emceed by state Del. Bobby Orrock (R-Caroline County).
Given that representatives of two Christian denominations were the only religious figures who participated in the ceremony, this doesn’t seem like a very inclusive event.
But worst of all was the choice of keynote speaker, William J. Murray. He is the head of the Religious Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C., and given his extreme views, Jefferson would not have approved of this selection.
Murray is the son of the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who brought one of the cases that spurred the U.S. Supreme Court to get government out of the school prayer business. But Murray, a former atheist who converted to evangelical Christianity, isn’t a big fan of the U.S. Supreme Court cases (Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp) that barred coercive prayer from the classroom in the 1960s. In fact, he blames those rulings for all sorts of bad things.
In one especially low moment, Murray exploited the tragic 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., to push his school-prayer agenda. He didn’t blame Adam Lanza for taking the lives of his own mother and 26 others, including 20 children. Instead, the Religious Right activist said it’s lack of school-sponsored prayer that led to the tragedy.
“In the vast majority of America’s public schools, the authority of God has been replaced with the authority of the iron fist of government,” he said. “Morals? Without the authority of God, there are no morals, and none are taught in the public schools today. The ethics that are taught are situational, perhaps the same situational ethics that led to the logic that caused the tragic shootings in Newtown.”
During his address on Sunday, Murray wasn’t at his most unhinged, but he did speak of the supposed power atheists have to control minds, and he bashed alleged public support for Islamic schools and carped about same-sex marriage.
When you add it all up, this celebration sounds like something of a gathering for the Religious Right and its allies. Humanists are allowed only token participation. While the Knights of Columbus are allowed to march in the parade in full uniform, humanist groups are forbidden from wearing anything to identify themselves and they are stationed at the back of the parade line.
This year, the Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason asked the Knights of Columbus if Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn could speak at the event, even if briefly. The Knights ignored the request, so Lynn was invited to speak at a local library.
Matt Jordan, a representative of the Fredericksburg Coalition for Reason, told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star that this is the third year his organization has asked to have a speaker participate in the official proceedings, and each time that request has been denied by the Knights of Columbus.
This is some “freedom” celebration. As long as the Knights of Columbus are in charge, it seems like non-Christians aren’t welcome.
It’s worth noting that the City of Fredericksburg is not listed as an official sponsor of the Religious Freedom Day celebration, but given that the Knights of Columbus surely have to get permission to parade through the streets and the fact that the mayor showed up, it’s hard to say that the local government is not connected with the event. Even if the city participates unofficially, the wrong message is sent when non-theists aren’t on equal footing.
The Knights have a habit of bringing in far-right speakers for this event. In 2003, they managed to lure Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia down from Washington, D.C. Scalia made intemperate comments about a case challenging “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that eventually reached the high court. He had to recuse himself.
Jefferson believed very strongly in the importance of individual freedom, and that included the ability to believe – or not believe – whatever you want when it comes to religion. An event that annually brings in speakers who don’t share the Sage of Monticello’s vision is an insult to the memory of both the man and one of his most treasured accomplishments.