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A monument to religious freedom
Fredericksburg Knights honor Jefferson's contribution
There’s a large stone monument that sits in the median of Washington Avenue, near the intersection of Pitt Street, in Fredericksburg. The monument, erected by the city government in 1932, pays tribute to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1777 — along with George Mason, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe and Thomas Ludwell Lee — drafted the Virginia statute of religious freedom. The statute became the basis for the First Amendment’s religious freedom clauses to the U.S. Constitution.
For nearly 60 years, Knights of Columbus in the Fredericksburg area have paid quiet homage to the work of those five men who helped lay the foundation of religious liberty in the United States.
The Health and Human Service mandate requiring most employers to provide health coverage for sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, has brought the issue of religious freedom to the forefront.
The statute was one of three seminal events in Jefferson’s life that he wished to have memorialized on his gravestone.
His instructions, which he wrote in 1826 and a copy of which can be found on the U.S. Library of Congress website, were simple and unambiguous: “On the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
‘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’
because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."
Jefferson introduced the statute in the General Assembly in 1779. After much wrangling and lobbying by James Madison, the law was passed in 1786.
The Virginia statute of religious freedom read in part: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Inscribed on the stone memorial by the City of Fredericksburg was this praise of the work done by the five men: “In this document, the United States of America made probably its greatest contribution to government recognition of religious freedom.”
In 1955, the Fredericksburg Knights of Columbus Council No. 4034 began laying a wreath of flowers annually at the monument to show their support and respect for the event that helped form the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1972, several Knights of Columbus councils in the area formed Rappahannock Assembly No. 1613, composed of fourth-degree Knights who are dedicated to fostering patriotism. Fourth-degree Knights are the visible arm of the Knights of Columbus and are sometimes referred to as the “patriotic degree.”
They, along with other religious and secular organizations, began a Religious Freedom Day parade from the Fredericksburg train station to the religious liberty monument.
The parade has happened on the second Sunday of January ever since. It’s a mile walk that begins at 1:30 p.m. and arrives at the monument around 2. There’s patriotic music, speeches by dignitaries and formal proclamations. The formal observance is over in about a half-hour. It’s a short ceremony, but it resonates deeply with fourth-degree Knights Loui J. Stevens and William J. McCarthy. Both men have been active in organizing the parade over the past several years.
Stevens is a parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and McCarthy is a parishioner of St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg.
McCarthy said it’s an ecumenical parade that includes Jews, Buddhists and Muslims.
“Last year we even had a group who did not believe in God,” he said.
McCarthy said that Boy Scout troops and women’s groups all participate in the annual parade as well as the Masons. He and Stevens are aware of the special ministry of the Knights of Columbus in protecting religious freedom. They believe that religious freedom is under attack and that the Knights have a role in ensuring that it remains strong.
“We as Knights must take the lead to protect religious freedom,” said McCarthy. “We will not surrender our religious freedom.”
Stevens is just as resolute and said that we have a God-given right to practice