Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thank you Jefferson and Madison for Religious Freedom

Imagine my surprise. It was a chill December day as I drove through rural South Carolina on my way home from a visit with my sister. As I flipped around the radio dial I found some easy-listening jazz and settled back to enjoy the winter landscape flying by my window. Now here’s the surprising part. When the commercial break arrived, I found I was listening to WLGI, a 50,000 watt radio station in Williamsburg County, S.C…but not just any small station…This was run by a local Bahá’i community institute. Bahá’i in the rural south?
My reaction in finding the radio station was, “Only in America!” I immediately fired off a text message to a Bahá’i friend in Brussels. Then I reflected a little more…The Bahá’i are persecuted, excluded, and murdered in their native Iran and have been since the 19th century. Here in the U.S. about 130,000 Bahá’i live and worship freely.

Then I reflected a little more…Only a few short months ago the TV was full of reports of a Florida preacher who threatened to burn a Koran and bitter opponents of an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan taking to the streets.

All these reflections and more bring me to the importance of today. On January 16, 1786 the Virginia legislature adopted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In 1993, the U.S. Congress commemorated this historic occasion by establishing National Religious Freedom Day.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the historic legislation but it took his friend, James Madison, to push it through the state legislature, opposed all the way by Patrick Henry. The immediate impact was to disestablish the Anglican Church as the official state church and stop laws persecuting other religions.

During the hot debates over the Statute, which would deprive the Anglican church of state tax revenues, representatives tried to limit the coverage to Christians. Madison successfully stopped the effort. Jefferson wrote he was delighted the move "was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination."

The essence of the statute is clear: "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." Original intent is crystal clear in these and many statements by Madison, Jefferson, and others.

Later, when Madison took up his duties in the first U.S. Congress, his first duty was to draft a set of amendments to the new Constitution he helped create. The first of these comes down to us as the First Amendment, establishing religious freedom and separation of church and state. Madison drew on the Virginia Statue and his life-long devotion to freedom of conscience.

So celebrate Religious Freedom Day, by the dictates of your own conscience, not just today, but every day. Whether you embrace a particular religion, no religion or something in between, the spirit of this day belongs to you.

The Bahá’i belief of our universal family living in peace sure brings that message home.

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© Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, President, Advantage Leadership, Inc.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bahá’i Faith, it was founded in 1852 by a Persian nobleman while imprisoned in Teheran for his religious beliefs. Bahá'u'lláh, a monotheist, believed all humans are part of the same family and ultimately believe in the same god. He emphasized the importance of the messages and messengers of all religions, and living a moral, ethical, peaceful life while serving other. (Learn more at

Jefferson included authorship of the Virginia Statute and the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia as the 3 accomplishments to be placed on his grave stone.

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