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In Celebration of Jefferson's Bill, the Freedom to Argue

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C05

Fredericksburg takes great pride in being the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson's religious freedom statute, placing a monument to the document on the city's grandest boulevard.

The statute began as state law and eventually became the basis for the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The document and its origins inevitably are raised whenever religious controversy arises locally -- as they were in the fall when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue a City Council member if he kept opening meetings with a prayer to Jesus. Both sides claimed that the statute supported their position.

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The debate over the statute -- whether it promises freedom to pursue religion or freedom from other people's religion -- has taken an ironic turn in the past two years at the annual Knights of Columbus celebration marking its birth in January 1777.

Overtly Christian speakers at the event, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who in 2003 criticized judges for removing "one nation, under God," from the Pledge of Allegiance, have prompted some people to complain that the statute's purpose was being distorted in the very place of its birth.

"In a pluralistic search for truth and meaning, however, a belief in God is one belief among many," the Rev. Jeffrey Jones of the city's Unitarian Universalist Fellowship wrote in an opinion column in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. "Scalia's remarks only add to the prevailing religious discrimination in our nation."

As this year's anniversary approaches, a new group intends to expand the discussion about Jefferson's -- and Fredericksburg's -- legacy and has scheduled a forum titled "What Did Jefferson Really Mean?" The forum will be Thursday at the University of Mary Washington. The Knights' 31st commemoration will follow on Sunday.

"There is a genuine concern here for inclusiveness across traditions, apart from any one particular religion," said David Cain, a Mary Washington religion professor who will moderate the forum.

The Knights of Columbus, an international Catholic men's group, says exclusion was never its goal. The group says its members march to the monument and lay a wreath precisely to show their appreciation for America's tolerance -- in this case, of Catholicism. As many as 130 religious organizations have been invited to participate Sunday.

"We're embarrassed people got upset about it," said William McCarthy, a retired Army colonel and a Knight. "We're not here to create controversy, just the opposite. Knights feel very strongly about religious freedom."

Although the Knights' celebration has become the official one, it was traditionally a private ceremony, he said. Other religious organizations were invited, he said, but none came until recently.

"Through the years, it was usually less than 40 of us on any given snowy Sunday to say, 'Thank you Mr. Jefferson.' "

But in 2002, a month of events marked the statute's 225th anniversary, and many more people became involved. In 2003, Scalia's speech was the only event. And last year, Rear Adm. Louis Iasiello, chief of Navy chaplains, told the crowd that "we are truly a nation under God, no matter what our federal courts may rule."

That's when planning began for this year's forum.

"Our little group sees it as valuable to keep the discussion going. As long as people are willing to talk about it, they aren't shooting at each other," said Bill Beck, former city mayor and organizer of the Fredericksburg Council for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was established to help with the 2002 celebration and revived after Iasiello's speech. "We want to remind people what an important role Fredericksburg had."

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