Tag Archives: Freedom of Religion

Reverse course and leave the church alone!

I think it was an error in our officer to shut the doors of the church, & in the Governor to refer it to the Roman catholic head. The priests must settle their differences in their own way, provided they commit no breach of the peace. If they break the peace they should be arrested. On our principles all church-discipline is voluntary; and never to be enforced by the public authority; but on the contrary to be punished when it extends to acts of force. The Govr. should restore the keys of the church to the priest who was in possession.
To James Madison, July 5, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Constitutional leaders protect people’s rights to protest peacefully.
Louisiana Governor Claiborne wrote to Secretary of State Madison about strongly disputing factions within a Catholic Church in New Orleans. A local officer, fearing the public might be endangered, locked the church doors, forbade either side entrance, and asked a more senior official in the Church to decide the matter.

Jefferson called this a mistake. Disputants within the church who broke no laws were not subject to any government action. This was the same theme as in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted more than 20 years before. That law, which dis-established the official church in his home state, limited government involvement in church affairs to people’s illegal actions only. In 1790, the First Amendment to the Constitution clearly tied the national government’s hands in most church matters.

The President ordered the return of the church’s keys.

“Thank you so much for the great job
you did as Thomas Jefferson.”
Missouri Mappers Association
Mr. Jefferson will do a great job for your audience.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Hands off God!

… the clergy [had] a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists … any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me …
To Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are hostile to any “official” religion.
Jefferson referenced the 1798 conflict with France that gave rise to the Sedition Acts. Those allowed punishing any who spoke or wrote against the government. Some reasoned if freedom of speech could be suppressed, why not freedom of religion? He answered with a resounding NO! Both freedoms were guaranteed by the same clause in the Constitution, Amendment One.

Generally, Jefferson supported and encouraged the private efforts of religions, for their moral tenets and social justice. He contributed financially to those efforts. He was absolute death, though, on any effort to give government’s approval to any particular sect. One of his three greatest accomplishments, as recorded by his request on his tombstone, was disestablishing the “official” church in Virginia.

The next to last sentence above is one of Jefferson’s most famous. By “tyranny over the mind of man,” he meant any and all efforts by some to tell others what they must believe. A government-approved church fell squarely into that camp. To them, he pledged “eternal hostility.”

“Your dramatic characterizations…[provided] a format that was exciting,
thought-provoking, and at the same time, very accessible.”
The Smithsonian Associates, Washington, D. C.

Exciting! Thought-provoking! Accessible! That’s Thomas Jefferson!
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739

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