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Commemorating Thomas Jefferson.

This year, Americans will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. He is, perhaps, the most illustrious of our founding fathers. Jefferson wrote the epitaph inscribed on his tomb: "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."

This is what he wished to be re, membered for. But we remember him for much, much more. First elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, he later became governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, Secretary of State, and then served two terms as president of the United States. james Madison, who followed him as president and who regarded him as his political mentor, upon learning of Jefferson' death July 4, 1826, just 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, said of him: "He lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of human kind."

But why author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom? What's that about? The Virginia statute was nothing more or less than the statutory precursor to the guarantee of religious freedom contained in the First Amendment to our federal Constitution. Noted historian Henry Steele Commager called the Virginia statute "probably the most famous single document in the history of religious freedom in America."

It was adopted in 1779 with the valuable assistance of james Madison but not until a proposed amendment attempting to insert the words "Jesus Christ . . . the holy author of our religion" was rejected. In his autobiography, Jefferson notes the defeat of this proposed amendment "by a great majority, is proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and the Infidel of every denomination."

With this background, we can perhaps better understand the depth of meaning inherent in President Jefferson's letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802, when, referring to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he stated: "I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation be, tween church and state."

A number of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing school-directed prayers in our public schools were capped by the recent ruling June 24, 1992) in the case of Lee v. Weisman, which rejected as unconstitutional a nondenominational prayer offered at a public high-school graduation.

One of our major political parties, spurred by the pervasive influence of the religious far right, has engaged in open attempts to destroy Jefferson's "wall of separation." Led by Pat Robertson, his Christian Coalition, and its allies, the fight to inject sectarian prayers in our public-school systems continues un, abated despite clear and definitive statements by our nation's highest court.

So, in the january 1993 issue of the Christian American, published by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, in a column entitled "Pat's View," purporting to contain Robertson's personal response to a series of questions, we find, in response to a query, "When will American children be able to once more pray in public schools?," the statement: "The outrageous and perverse court rulings banning God from our schools can, not possibly stand much longer." And on page 23 of the same issue appears an article encouraging disobedience to the High Court's ruling by citing examples of schools which have "refused to cave in to left-wing pressure. In Blount Court, Tennessee, school commissioners passed a resolution to support school prayer in classrooms, graduation ceremonies, and athletic events."

We who obey the rule of law, who recognize the wisdom of our founding fathers, who support the liberties established by our Bill of Rights--what are we going to do about the lawlessness encouraged by the far right's Pat Buchanans, Pat Robertsons, Jerry Falwells, and others of their ilk?

The American Humanist Association has already undertaken an important initiative to preserve the vision of church-state separation embodied in the First Amendment.

Shortly before his death in 1992, AHA President Isaac Asimov expressed the growing alarm of many when he wrote of the proliferation of "student-led" so-called Bible clubs on pubfic-school campuses across the country. These "clubs" were the fundamentalist/evangelical response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the federal Equal Access Act; it is now reliably estimated that there are some 10,000 such Bible clubs, and the number is still growing. Groups such as the well-known Campus Crusade for Christ, organizations of Christian Athletes, and other, lesser known Christian evangelicals have erupted with renewed activity on public high-school campuses.

Hallway evangelism is encouraged by these "born-again" Christian groups in clear and open violation of the limitations imposed by the federal law. Many students and outraged parents have petitioned school authorities to stop such unlawful religious proselytizing in our public schools. But individual protests are wholly insufficient to stem the rising flood of religious sectarianism in our public schools.

Realizing that a massive attack on the minds and beliefs of our children has been launched by the religious right on the heretofore neutral turf of our public schools, the American Humanist Association has embarked on a new program with the objective of actively promoting in our schools such Jeffersonian principles as the separation of church and state; the rule of reason over the affairs of humankind; the use of the scientific method, not superstition, to advance the human condition; and self-government by an informed citizenry.

Thomas Jefferson wrote to his nephew: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith." He wrote to his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush: "I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against any form of tyranny over the mind of man.

To uphold, preserve, and advance the philosophies of this enlightened founding father of our democracy, the AHA has provided the seed money for establishing Thomas Jefferson Societies on public-school campuses, and the association's board of directors has authorized me to proceed with the project. With this objective in mind, I have produced (with the assistance of others, of course) a brochure for use by those students who are ready and willing to organize Thomas Jefferson Societies on their campuses.

We believe such Thomas Jefferson Societies can be a most effective tool for students who wish to preserve an open society on their campuses, welcoming all who are dedicated to thinking on their own and resisting "any form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Sidney Goetz is a member of the board of director of the American Humanist Association and project leader of the Thomas Jefferson Societes.
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Title Annotation:American Humanist Association sponsors Thomas Jefferson Societies on high school campuses
Author:Goetz, Sidney
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1993
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