BY JOHN RAGOSTA/RELIGIOUS NEWS SERVICE
Editor’s Note: John Ragosta’s commentary on religious freedom was published by the Religious News Service on Jan. 15, 2013. In light of statements made by Mayor Craig Fletcher and Vice Mayor Tracy Carroll at yesterday’s Council Meeting, and given that the Council was just one vote away from exposing the City to a federal lawsuit, we thought it helpful to put the ongoing struggle for religious freedom in its historial context. Ragosta is the author of, “Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed,” and is a visiting assistant professor of history at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
Wednesday (Jan. 16) is Religious Freedom Day – a day to celebrate the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. Why celebrate it? We might start by remembering a history of religious discrimination and persecution.
As the American Revolution approached, Virginia had a state-established church: Everyone, no matter their religion, paid taxes to support the local Anglican priest, and church attendance was mandatory. Baptist and Presbyterian ministers faced jail for preaching without a license – licenses were hard to get and many refused on principle.
By 1775, more than half of Virginia’s Baptist ministers had been jailed for preaching; others were pelted with stones or chased with hounds. One prayer meeting was broken up when a hornet’s nest was thrown among the congregants, another with a snake.
Things improved dramatically during the war – Anglican leaders needed Baptists and Presbyterians to fight – but after the war, the Anglican establishment sought to renew a tight government-religion link with a “general assessment” tax to be paid to all Christian sects.