Washington, D.C., July 2, 2013 – Thomas Jefferson proclaimed America’s freedom from Britain in the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate this week. But he left other legacies: a new monument to another liberty he valued is rising in Richmond, VA.
Jefferson’s credo about religious freedom became law in 1786 on the downtown Richmond site where the First Freedom Center (FFC) is now under construction. The Virginia General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom after years of raucous debate and persecution of some religious groups.
It provided foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Jefferson’s founder partner in the effort to mandate freedom of conscience in choosing a religion or no religion at all was fellow Virginian James Madison. He wielded his considerable political skills to win the vote while Jefferson was living in France.
Years in planning, the First Freedom Center (FFC) will share the Richmond site with two new Marriott hotels. First Freedom Center’s mission: “to advance the fundamental human rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” is a mission that includes the right to embrace no religion at all, explained FFC vice president Chris Payton.
“We try to be a big tent organization and be open to different views,” said Payton, – “to have relationships with right and left thinkers - and promote the idea that America, and indeed the world, is a pluralistic society or civilization. Thus, we need to be civil to one another and mindful of religious differences.”
To promote its mindset, FCC sponsors forums, debates, and statements about such contemporary questions as construction of mosques in New York City and burial of an Islamic terrorist. Payton explained the FFC’s international mission is also to call attention to the mistreatment and difficulties of all kinds of religious groups worldwide.
Education of all ages is also the mission of FCC, and one of its flagship programs since 1995 is The First Freedom Student Competition, a national high school essay/video competition that promotes knowledge of religious freedom through a themed competition. Winners are recognized in their communities and local media, and receive cash prizes.
Other events include the annual National Religious Freedom Day awards dinner, which honors religious freedom advocates, and presidential religious freedom proclamations on January 16.
Religious turmoil and disagreements are nothing new to America, Payton said. In Jefferson’s time, there was a tax-supported state religion in Virginia, and Jefferson, Madison and others objected to the persecution groups like Baptists received at the hands of some colonists who wanted them eliminated from the Commonwealth. The founders who pushed the religious freedom legislation to law believed in the right of conscience, that each person should have the right to follow his or her religion of choice or no religion at all.
Jefferson left explicit instructions about the monument that would be erected over his grave at his Monticello estate.
He included a sketch of the marker’s shape and the epitaph it would carry:
“…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription and not a word more:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, 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 testimonnials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
And so it was done. The gravestone remains centerpiece of the Monticello family plot. The declaration lies on display in the National Archives, and The University of Virginia continues to educate and innovate. Coming in 2014, religious freedom gets a Jefferson monument as well.
Read more of Ruth Hill’s faith travel posts at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.
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