Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jefferson: People Must Be Free to Profess Their Religion

The metaphor Thomas Jefferson once used in a letter, "separation of church and state," is often used by people today to block other individual (or group) actions or public statements regarding their religious beliefs. One such blockage that turns up in the news fairly often is the concept of public statements regarding faith.

This goes against our history, certainly, because the founders often quoted religious concepts, even during their discussions of various official issues. But I believe it also goes against what Jefferson himself had in mind. As I have pointed out before in this blog, Jefferson used the separation metaphor in one letter, but used the term "freedom of religion" more often, including in correspondence with those who were actually writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights (when Jefferson was in France).

Consider Jefferson's quote below. Does it sound like he would endorse blocking a school choir from singing Ave Maria in a concert, or stop students from wishing each other "Merry Christmas"?

"We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Virginia Baptists, 1808. ME 16:320

Notice that he says we must be free to profess our religious principles. So how do we dare use some of Jefferson's other words to stop a student from invoking the name of Jesus during a commencement address? Or how do we dare to stop a child from passing out Christmas card to friends at school based on quoting Jefferson?

As found in the Jefferson collection of the University of Virginia:

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