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We can no longer take religious freedom for granted, for those who attacked us also attacked the way we express our faith.

This Fragile Freedom

A day at the office. A flight home. A walk down a busy street — all without fear for our safety. That changed in little more than an instant on Sept 11. Now, we are trying to cope with terrorism.

As a nation we are in pain, in need of healing. A part of that process is justice, but so is serious thought about our values. What do we truly believe in?

Any look at the incalculable damage — loss of life, destruction of property, economic impact, scars to our collective psyche — must also include a new perspective on the freedoms we cherish and are defending.

One such freedom, America's first freedom, is religious liberty, a powerful concept which has drawn so many to our shores and given us our rich tapestry of diversity. It is a freedom we can no longer take for granted, for those who attacked us also attacked the way we express our faith. It is a freedom of conscience that allows us to believe however we choose, to worship as we choose, or not at all, and to do so without governmental intrusion.

This is an idea relatively new in the history of mankind. And it is a freedom first fully articulated by Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. Religious liberty was still a foreign concept even for most of the American colonies. While Virginia's patriot leaders were united in their common struggle for independence, some of them also saw the need to translate natural rights arguments for independence into legal guarantees of "inalienable" rights, including the right of conscience. George Mason included a protection of religious freedom in his 1776 Declaration of Rights. James Madison successfully argued to broaden the Declaration's right of "religious tolerance" for the broader protection of the right to the "free exercise of religion."

But it was left to Jefferson to craft what was to become the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a monumental work guaranteeing the unfettered right of religious conscience and the first such governmental protection in history. It was adopted in 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly at 14th and Cary streets in Richmond, and its eloquent advancement of religious freedom and the separation of government and religion became the model for the constitutional guarantee of Article I (the First Amendment) of the Bill of Rights.

Religious liberty, proclaimed first in Virginia, is an enduring legacy to the world, with precepts as compelling today as they were then. It is a fragile freedom that continues to be defined by legislatures and by courts. It is a freedom to which many nations aspire and for others remains the cause of continuing violent conflict.

This summer in Mostar, Bosnia, a city torn by ethnic and religious war, the Council for America's First Freedom brought together 15 teen-agers of different backgrounds and faiths, to help these future leaders envision the possibility of enduring peace through mutual respect. Together, they visited houses of worship and sections of the city, their lifetime home, where they had never dared venture before. They discussed war, assumptions about each other, hurt and hate. "The most important thing is that we should live together without conflicts and provocations," reflected Muslim Yasmina Mujic, 15. "If we respect someone's religion, we'll live without conflicts."

Ivona Maric, 18, a Bosnian Croat, expressed it more personally: "I learned that I can love people of different religions just like I can love the ones of my own religion or nationality."

The Council for America's First Freedom is based in Richmond, the birthplace of religious freedom. Its mission, through its programs and projects, is to promote this simple, but not yet universal freedom and to commemorate Virginia's role in establishing that freedom as a human right to be celebrated, commemorated, protected and held sacred.

Tommy P. Baer and Muhammad S. Sahli are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Council for America's First Freedom. On Jan. 16 the Council will commemorate the Virginia General Assembly's adoption of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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