Religious Freedom Day may be the most significant national day that most of us have never heard of. It has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993, and commemorates a foundational moment in the history of religious freedom.
Considering how central religious freedom is to the Christian Right’s framing of issues ranging from abortion and contraception, to LGBTQ rights, and increasingly even labor concerns, it is seems strange that there is no massive effort on the Right hijack the day for their own purposes. With only a few minor exceptions, they have not. But there is one group worth noting, that generates attention disproportionate to the scale of its activities.
First, a little background.
Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, and campaigned into law by James Madison in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founders sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government, and epitomizes how these towering figures of American constitutional history understood religious freedom. And that makes it a problem for the Religious Right, because the bill can in no way be construed as an excuse to discriminate against anyone, or to exempt anyone from adherence to the law of the land.
I recently wrote that the Christian Right really does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day—mostly because the Virginia Statue and the history surrounding it does not support their revisionist narrative of history, nor their contemporary religious and political agenda.
Not even close.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (PDF) not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The short of it is that religious equality was the basis for how the founders thought about the relationship between religion and government, when they authored and ratified the Constitution, and later, the First Amendment. Religious freedom was intended for individuals to be free from coercion by government and powerful religious institutions.
All which brings us to ReligiousFreedomDay.com, which comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day. The group behind it is a small California evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education, headed by longtime activist, Eric Buehrer. This group is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to promote its religious views and to evangelize children. (This is detailed in The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart.)
Gateways is unambiguous about its intentions:
“Gateways to Better Education is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world.”
They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.'”
All this might seem like a small thing from a small organization. But Gateways enjoys an outsized significance not only because they turn up at the top of Google searches for Religious Freedom Day. They often enjoy boosts from allied national Christian Right organizations. This year, for example, Citizen Link, the political arm of Focus on the Family has taken-up their cause.
Gateways, founded in 1991, teamed up with the Christian Right legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom (and other Christian Right groups) in 2009 for this project. (Uncoincidentally, 2009 was also the year that top Christian Right and evangelical leaders teamed up with scores of Catholic bishops and top neoconservatives to make religious freedom a core of their common agenda, via The Manhattan Declaration.)
Gateways claims to promote an approach that is legal and constitutional for educators, but those who have taken a closer look are not so sure.
Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported that their initiative was misleading. The then-new Gateways pamphlet “”Free to Speak,” for example, claimed that “students have an unqualified right to include religious material in their class work and homework,” Boston reported. “The reality is different.”
Indeed, Gateways’ is not merely interested in protecting free expression, but opportunistically turning children into evangelical agents and generating conflicts in the classroom that end up in court.
Boston also reported that Religious Right legal groups had been unsuccessful in their efforts to intervene on behalf of kids who inserted religious content into their work “and either received a poor grade or were told to knock it off.” The resulting consensus, Boston says was, “Teachers and school officials have the right to curb students who wish to use classroom assignments for proselytism. The federal courts tend to defer to teachers in this area; judges really don’t want to grade little Johnny’s homework.”
Gateways and their allies added Religious Freedom Sunday to the program in 2010. The idea was to get churches to promote their religious expression campaign on the Sunday before Religious Freedom Day. (This year Religious Freedom Sunday is January 11th, prior to the official Religious Freedom Day on the 16th) . But Boston once again looked askance at the group’s motives and methods.
Gateways, he says, “is notorious for its unsolicited advice to public schools. The group plays fast and loose with the facts, advising teachers on ways to slip fundamentalist Christianity into the lesson plans. My favorite was a Gateways pamphlet a few years ago featuring a talking Easter Bunny who comes to a public school to advise a teacher on how she can teach kids about the resurrection of Jesus.” (Fortunately, educators, parents, and churches do not need to look to Gateways or the Alliance Defending Freedom for guidance in how to navigate religion and the public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a free book. Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights)
Over the years, Religious Freedom Day has not generated much attention. But times have changed. Religious freedom as a concept is generating more interest today than at perhaps any time since the founding generation. Because this is so it is possible that Gateways and their friends on the Religious Right may this year succeed in generating some distractions from the real meaning of Religious Freedom Day. It is also possible that others of us may also begin to speak out and be heard.