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Jefferson's epitaph: A legacy of liberty

January 13, 2013 12:10 am


Jefferson listed the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as one of his three crowning accomplishments. edwals13.jpg.jpg

The Knights of Columbus will gather today at the monument to religious freedom on Washington Avenue.

HAVE YOU ever thought about what epitaph you'd like inscribed on your tombstone? Probably not. It's a morbid thought and it's only January--the time for resolutions and fresh starts. But in an odd sort of way, thinking about an epitaph can give insight into how we want to be remembered. Most epitaphs center on names, dates, and relationships. No great surprise there, since you can't take it with you. However, Thomas Jefferson obviously gave it serious contemplation. He sketched out his obelisk and noted three things he considered his crowning achievements.

Jefferson's final directive was clear, "On the face of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more: 'Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia' because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom was drafted by Jefferson in the year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison shepherded Bill No. 82 through the General Assembly for seven years before it was adopted in 1785. Part of the first paragraph reads, "That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical. "

The second paragraph continues: "We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that 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."

In other words, Jefferson was well aware of the historical precedent of government abuse of its citizens by confiscatory taxation whether in money or goods on account of religious belief. The taxation of subjects into submission was something Jefferson was striving to prevent. He sought to establish that the heavy sword of government would not crack the consciences of its subjects merely because of its weight. Authority to violate conscience was not a right assigned to the government by the people.

This statute laid the foundation for the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."


Why was this statute of religious freedom necessary? There is nothing new under the sun. One need only look to efforts by the Obama administration to force Hobby Lobby to pay fines of $1.3 million a day to force it to abandon conscience and pay for abortions and abortifacient drugs or else suffer the loss of its business by punitive taxation.

This is precisely why the administration is finding itself in court--for violating the freedom and conscience of its citizens. Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, also filed suit and was given an emergency stay. The same type of lawsuit that produces two vastly different outcomes in response to a threat against religious liberty is indicative of a justice system unmoored from its basic tenet of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

In a letter to Lifesite News, David Green, CEO and founder of Hobby Lobby, writes: "Our government threatens to fine job creators in a bad economy. Our government threatens to fine a company that's raised wages four years running. Our government threatens to fine a family for running its business according to its beliefs. It's not right. I know people will say we ought to follow the rules; that it's the same for everybody. But that's not true. The government has exempted thousands of companies from this mandate, for reasons of convenience or cost. But it won't exempt them for reasons of religious belief."

He concludes: "My family has lived the American dream. We want to continue growing our company and providing great jobs for thousands of employees, but the government is going to make that much more difficult. The government is forcing us to choose between following our faith and following the law. I say that's a choice no American--and no American business--should have to make." Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

On Washington Avenue in downtown Fredericksburg sits a monument to religious freedom and the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and his committee--George Mason, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and Thomas Ludwell Lee. Erected in 1932, it has been honored since 1955 by the Fredericksburg-area Knights of Columbus every second Sunday in January. Today they will again mark its importance with a parade and wreath-laying to commemorate this pivotal moment of religious freedom in these United States.


January is a typically frigid month. Its mornings awaken us to frozen ground, bare branches, and bleak gray skies. It's almost haunting. Perhaps it's because post-Christmas we recall the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod to protect his throne. But in America, we don't protect thrones, we protect convenience. January this year brings the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In its wake exists a divided nation, dismembered bodies, and wounded hearts and souls. Once again, this January, hundreds of thousands of pro-life Americans will exercise their rights under the First Amendment to participate in the March for Life in opposition to that dreadful decision of 1973.

'Tis better to light a candle than curse the darkness. "For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness grasps it not."

Mary Walsh is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania County.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.