In 1774, a young James Madison, while traveling through Culpeper County in Virginia – well before he became our fourth president – passed by a jail where a number of Baptist preachers had been incarcerated for nothing more than preaching without an official government license. One of these “criminals” preached from a window of the jail to any who would listen. Madison would never forget the dedication of those brave preachers – nor the audacity of the officials who had jailed them.
So profoundly moved was he by what he described as this “diabolical hell-conceived principle of persecution,” that Madison would dedicate much of his life to defending religious freedom. He authored the “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a summary of fundamental religious liberty cited in U.S. Supreme Court opinions, and the Virginia Bill of Rights, after which the United States Bill of Rights was modeled. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he proposed the wording of the First Amendment and his overall effort and influence earned him the compliment of “chief architect of the Constitution.”
According to Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham, there was no principle in his public or private life “to which he held with greater vigor and tenacity than this one of religious liberty.” Madison believed, as he wrote in the “Memorial,” that “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging [that duty, could] be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Moreover, that duty was an “unalienable right” from God to which every man was entitled.
Unfortunately, since the tyranny of the Roman Caesars to today’s oppression by the Chinese Communists, not much has changed as those in power seek to silence Christians for performing their duty to the Creator God. Even in our own country, in cities like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Salem, Mass., the injustice Madison saw in Culpeper County, Va., 234 years ago is not just a thing of the past.
Four years ago, Michael Marcavage, a Christian evangelist from Pennsylvania, was arrested and placed in jail for preaching on a public sidewalk at a gay and lesbian block party in downtown Philadelphia. Together with 10 other dedicated Christians, Marcavage was incarcerated for proclaiming that homosexuality is a “sin” and explaining the biblical view of such behavior. The “Philadelphia 11” were charged with a host of crimes, including “ethnic intimidation” – a “hate crime” under Pennsylvania law – for simply declaring homosexuality to be immoral.
All charges against Marcavage and his group were eventually dropped, but to prevent further arrests Marcavage and several of those arrested sued the Pennsylvania legislature and governor. They argued that not only did the legislature pass a law punishing what was essentially “thought,” but the lawmakers themselves had violated their own constitution to do so.
“Hate crimes” laws are a fundamental trespass by government into a jurisdiction over which only God can judge: the hearts and minds of men. Historically, government could punish only the actions of men, not what they thought. But in an effort to extend their politically correct, immoral agenda, some legislators shamelessly broke their own rules.
The Pennsylvania “ethnic intimidation” amendment in 2002 was originally introduced in the House as an “agricultural crop destruction” bill. But some members of the Senate decided to completely rewrite the bill to amend a pre-existing “ethnic intimidation” law by adding such non-ethnic but controversial categories as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” By changing the original purpose of the legislation, and assigning it a deceptive title, the legislature violated several provisions of Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court agreed with Marcavage and his co-petitioners and struck down the law, but the state’s legislature and governor have now appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (See the Foundation for Moral Law’s legal arguments on appeal filed March 17, 2008, on behalf of Marcavage and the other Christians.)
Just last Halloween, Michael Marcavage was again arrested, this time in Salem, Mass., as he preached on a public sidewalk to thousands of Halloween revelers concerning the wages of sin and separation from God. Because Marcavage was using a megaphone – even though allowed by municipal law during the time in question – he was arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct.”
At trial the court disregarded a video of the event and the arrest, which clearly showed Marcavage preaching the Gospel message in a calm, rational manner, and found him guilty of disorderly conduct. The judge excused his ruling by stating that in Salem, Halloween is a “unique day” and one in which police could silence even a preacher if they thought that his words might impact “public safety.” In other words, preaching the Gospel is dangerous and disorderly conduct on Halloween night in Salem.
The real problem in modern Salem – where policemen and firemen proudly wear insignia declaring Salem as “the Witch City” – is that those who practice witchcraft and the occult obviously do not like to hear a message of Christianity and might react violently to what they do not want to hear. In some strange twist of logic, the judge justified the police’s decision to silence a Christian based on the dark festivities of that “unique day.”
Madison’s “hell-conceived principle of persecution” still raises its ugly head in modern America, particularly where the darkness is boldly confronted by the light of truth. Like those Baptist preachers in Virginia long ago, Michael Marcavage and his fellow evangelists have every right to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They should be protected, not prosecuted. After all, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion – even in Salem, Mass., on Halloween night.
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