How Much Times Have Changed for Religious Liberty

Every so often, it’s useful to review some history, and see if we can learn any lessons.

In 1802, the United States obtained from France what is now the State of Louisiana as part of the famous Louisiana Purchase.  At that time, there was a group of Ursuline Sisters in Louisiana, educating poor girls at a school that still exists to this present day.  They were worried about whether they would be able to continue to own property and carry out their charitable work, once they became part of the United States.  So they wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, seeking assurances about their religious freedom.

President Jefferson has an undeserved reputation as an enemy of religion, based largely on a misunderstanding of the meaning of his position that the Constitution created a “wall of separation” between church and state.  But he gave no evidence of any hostility or indifference to religion in his response to the Ursulines.  Instead, he wrote:

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.  I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship & respect.

President Jefferson clearly recognized the fundamental freedom of people to live according to their religious beliefs.  After all, he was the author of the famous Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  He understood that government had no business interfering in the practice of religion, or in coercing the consciences of believers.  In fact, he recognized the benefit to society from the good works of religious individuals and institutions.

Sad to say, it is difficult to imagine the incumbent President writing a similar letter to the present-day Little Sisters of the Poor.  Times have indeed changed.

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