Just about every year I speak at some event on Religious Freedom Day. National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786. This is the first known document in the world to guarantee religious freedom and thus freedom of expression.
What is not widely known is that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and a committee he was working with in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1777. This year I spoke in Fredericksburg at the site of the monument dedicated to this document and its adoption by the Assembly. A Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, has been entrusted with the memorial event for more than 60 years. Many denominations participated in the memorial event, and the Knights Templars, the Christian organization within the Masons, supplied an honor guard as did the Knights of Columbus.
For the last two years, atheist groups have demanded a role in the celebration, which includes a parade from downtown Fredericksburg to the site of the memorial. This year the local atheist group, which has no physical address or phone number, demanded that the “Rev.” Barry Lynn be a rebuttal speaker to me.
The Knights of Columbus organizers refused the atheist group’s ridiculous request. The event every year is 90 percent ceremonial, with much of it being a parade. The mayor of the city of Fredericksburg was given two minutes to read a proclamation in commemoration of the day. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who was present, was not given time to speak. I was the keynote speaker and had only 20 minutes to deliver a major address on religious freedom.
Because the atheists were not permitted to change the format and add a second speaker, they told the media that they were not allowed to participate. Then they joined the parade with their banners, proving they lied to the media about being restricted from the event. They were not told they could not participate; they were told they could not dictate changes to the event.
Only two organizations in the parade had banners promoting themselves – the atheists and the Muslims. These are the very groups who believe religious freedom is only for themselves and should be denied to anyone who does not believe as they do. The Muslim group had the largest banner, on which their address and phone number were prominently displayed. Both the atheists and the Muslims pushed to the front in hopes the media would print photos of them at the event, which is of course exactly what happened.
Later that day, the atheist group held a meeting attended by less than 20 people, during which they heard “Rev.” Barry Lynn state that Christians are the biggest danger to religious freedom and that Muslims are persecuted in the United States. Barry Lynn heads Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group whose goal is to restrict any public expression of the Gospel.
The one line most of the media picked up from my speech was one that surprised me because it is the core of the argument against political correctness. I said: “If I am not allowed to offend someone today, then I must not have freedom of speech.” In context I was saying that the politically correct view that people can be stopped from offending others is contrary to the concept of freedom of speech. These are my remarks in context:
The Supreme Court and its inferior courts have created new “rights” in the past few decades which they believe overrule those established by God and guaranteed by the founders.
One of these supposed new rights is the right of an individual not to be offended by another individual. Praying in public, wearing religious clothing or quoting the Bible is now deemed unfit for elected public officials.
Pardon me, but freedom is about offending others. If I am not allowed to offend someone today, then I must not have freedom of speech.
No one can have an opinion without offending others. I am sure my words today would offend the religious fascists who operate the Saudi Islamic Academy in northern Virginia or some group of radical secularists who would ban all religious speech in public places.
In many Western nations that we refer to as “democratic,” it is against the law to offend a long list of groups. In the United Kingdom, a man was sentenced to one year in jail for putting signs in his apartment window that “offended” Muslims. The “offending” signs said such things as “No Shariah Law in the U.K.” In France, aging French actress Brigitte Bardot was fined 15,000 euros ($20,000) for “inciting racial hatred” against Muslims for stating that they were “destroying our country by imposing their ways.” It was the fifth time she was arrested and fined for stating her belief that Muslims were adversely changing the French society.
In the preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“well aware that almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion …”
Atheists claim Jefferson as one of their own, and liberals refer to him as a deist at best in matters of religion. However, in Article 16 of the act Jefferson wrote it states: “that religion, or the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other.”(Emphasis mine)
Patrick Henry affirmed these rights for all based upon Christian values when he wrote in March 1775:
“[I]t cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
We must note that Patrick Henry said that we afforded “freedom of worship” to those of other faiths. He did not say nor did he intend to say that newly formed minority groups, such as the atheist group in Fredericksburg, were to be given universal veto authority over the practices of Christians in public places.
Our freedom in this nation is a gift from God, and the core of that freedom is religious liberty. As religious liberty fades, so does every freedom we enjoy. Without religious freedom there is not freedom of speech, as can be seen in other nations. If a government can restrain us from speaking of our faith, it can restrain us in any regard.
We must do more than cherish our freedoms; we must defend them or lose them, and first among those liberties is religious freedom.
We must not retreat to where most Europeans find themselves today, fearful of publicly holding an opinion the government finds offensive to some group or the other.
If we do surrender and accept that government is the new god and that legislators and judges are the new priests, it is not just Americans who will lose that first and most basic right of freedom of religion; it will be all of humanity.