Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: The state of religious freedom |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: The state of religious freedom

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

When Thomas Jefferson proposed the separation of church and state to protect religious freedom, he unleashed a firestorm of protest.

He braced himself for a stern fight over separation of church and state. Anglicans controlled Virginia. They didn’t want Baptists or Presbyterians to invade their territory.

After the Revolutionary War, Jefferson revised antiquated colonial statutes so our republic might flourish. He aimed “to establish religious freedom on the broadest bottom.” But stern opposition initially blocked Jefferson’s legislative efforts to protect religious liberty.

In 1779, he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He listed it on his tombstone’s epitaph as one of his three greatest accomplishments.

But it took the methodical, persistent work of colleague James Madison to move this bill though mountains of paperwork, procedural motions to kill it and sentiment not to expand religious liberty. This statute became law in 1786.

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Jefferson’s friends reminded him that he was insensitive to Church of England members if he made it easier for Baptists and Presbyterians to build their churches near existing Anglican parishes.

John Page, Jefferson’s best friend when they attended the College of William and Mary, complained because no longer would Anglican clergy receive state funding. They didn’t get as much salary from free-will offerings. These ministers, feeling their purses pinched, expressed “enthusiastic bigotry” against clergy of other denominations who might woo into their congregations stellar Anglican givers.

Aren’t such tensions that erupted in Jefferson’s Virginia over religious freedom surfacing today?

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife, Daisy Khan, plan to exercise their constitutional right to build an Islamic center and mosque at 45 Park Place, two blocks northeast of the World Trade Center site.

These folks are the kind of Muslims Americans accept. They are from the Sufi Islamic tradition that isn’t militant, doesn’t brand those who differ from them as infidels and work to eliminate al-Qaida.

These Muslims wish to build a 9/11 memorial, a mosque in which to worship and a community center that reminds Americans of a YMCA – with a swimming pool and fitness center.

Why, then, aren’t conservative political leaders at the head of the line, defending the right of Rauf to erect a mosque near ground zero?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin released a Tweet: “Ground Zero mosque is unnecessary provocation; it stabs hearts.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who should know better because he writes about our nation’s guiding principles, chimed in how “there should be no mosque near ground zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

He’s right about what our nation’s Middle East ally forbids. Saudis bar Jews and Christians from worshipping in their Muslim nation.

Wouldn’t it be in the Jeffersonian spirit of religious freedom if Gingrich took a high road in this debate? Rather than outlawing a mosque near ground zero, he should endorse a higher ethic that guides our republic. Knock down barriers that forbid religions to erect houses of worship.

Exercising religious freedom so that Muslims may worship near ground zero “stabs hearts,” Palin says. It makes people irritable. Such anger leads to irrational thinking.

“Come, now, let us reason together,” God implored (Isaiah 1:18). But ancient Jews closed their minds just as do critics who curtail religious liberty out of respect for 9/11 victims and their relatives.

On Aug. 3, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a stirring defense of showing tolerance by approving this project.

On Aug. 13, President Barack Obama sounded as controversial and correct as Jefferson when he declared in a White House speech, “I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”Emotions erupt when the lofty principle of church-state separation gains traction in sensitive situations. Practicing religious freedom for all remains as controversial as it was when Jefferson advocated it. It’s the reasonable, right and proper American way, correcting irrational responses. Tirades against freedom of religion show how necessary its defense is in every age.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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