Today is Religious Freedom Day, annually celebrated on January 16 to commemorate the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.
Thomas Jefferson, who served as the nation’s third President from March 4, 1801 to March 4, 1809, is buried at his estate at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. His tombstone, a beautiful obelisk of granite, bears an epitaph of Jefferson’s design. From the Monticello.org website:
Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave. In this document (undated), Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker, and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed:
“…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia
“because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
Jefferson further instructed that the monument was to be made of “coarse stone…that no one might be tempted hereafter to destroy if for the value of the materials.”
It should be noted that Jefferson chose NOT to include “President of the United States” among the accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered the most.
I have a bit of a personal connection to this; Jefferson’s headstone suffered repeated vandalisms beginning soon after his burial, not on account of anyone’s animosity toward him, but rather, because of visitors chipping off bits of it as souvenirs! As a result, a new headstone was commissioned, and Jefferson’s descendants made the decision to place the original headstone on the Francis Quadrangle at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, where I’m from originally, and where I went to college. It was unveiled on July 4, 1885.
I have walked by this headstone hundreds and hundreds of times, and stopped to examine it very often. A plaque accompanying it does identify Jefferson as our third president, explains the obelisk’s presence on the Mizzou campus, and quotes the original epitaph, which is illegible on the stone itself.
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom meant so much to Thomas Jefferson because it served as a model for the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion. This is what Thomas Jefferson considered to be his penultimate achievement and what he wanted as a model for the entire United States.
Why is it so important that the government be secular?
This is a question frequently asked of us. Setting aside the fact that religions are dangerous and false, separation of religion and government is absolutely necessary because if any religion co-opts legislature, it means that no other religion is free to practice as that legislature pertains to their beliefs. The range of applications is nearly unlimited: Marriage equality, right-to-die, abortion, birth control, sex ed, science education, science funding, religious school funding, liquor sales, business hours, employment discrimination, the list goes on and on and on. And this is not only a problem for people who practice other religions, but especially for atheists. There was a time in this country when atheists were forced to pray Christian prayers. We still have major problems with our governing officials even acknowledging the problem of global climate change, let alone working to fix it, because they are convinced their god either will not let us die off, or because they don’t care if the world ends and actually look forward to that. Keep in mind that these are the same people who fund our wars.
The only way to guarantee the free exercise of religion is to ensure that our government remains secular. This is something you’d think religionists would stand by us on.
In his address today, President Obama included atheists and agnostics as part of the cultural fabric that makes up American society. This is an important step in government recognition of atheist rights and interests, and perhaps just as noteworthy, an important step in mainstream acceptance of the fact that atheists live here and are people, too. Although Obama has not sided with atheists on many things we care very much about, I do want to make sure we give credit where credit is due—Obama’s administration has recognized atheism as having a place at the table more than any previous administration. There is still a lot of work to do, and we have a long way to go, but this is progress.
- Dave Muscato, Public Relations Director