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Members reverence religious freedom

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Members of the Church in Virginia have not forgotten Thomas Jefferson's crusade to secure religious freedom. In commemoration of his accomplishments, they joined with the Council For America's First Freedom Jan. 11, to remember the day that religious liberty became law in Virginia.

"There is a reverence here," said Sandi Poulsen, director of the Church's Public Affairs in Central Virginia, "for men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from Virginia who played a hand in establishing a nation where the gospel could be restored."It was here, in the old Capitol in Richmond, that the concept of religious freedom gained a foothold."

The day of remembering centered on a program of music and speeches held in the parish where Thomas Jefferson attended church when he was in college in present-day Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

"The parish has been preserved as it was in the 1700s," Sister Poulsen said. "Lighting was by candlelight. And walking out of the building on the night of the program, onto the cobblestone streets to the sound of drums and fifes, created a contrast of past and present that seemed to give the perspective of time to the importance of religious liberty."

Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson penned a document known as the "Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom" and presented it to the Virginia General Assembly. The statute was hotly debated for nine years, until Jan. 16, 1786, when the bill was passed and became law in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson believed it was the right of all people to worship without persecution or government intervention, said Bishop James E. Skeen of the Charlottesville 1st Ward, Waynesboro Virginia Stake. "He recognized that religious liberty and religious understanding are essentials for a peaceful, thriving nation."

This statute of religious freedom may have been little understood by Virginians in 1786, but it laid the foundation for the enactment of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1791, explained Larry Sidwell, a member of the Charlottesville 2nd Ward and former tour guide at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.

The Virginia bill became "the first law of its kind on American soil, and perhaps, the first law of its kind in Western civilization," said Diane Shelton, director of Public Affairs in the Richmond Virginia Chesterfield Stake.

Pres. Robert M. Wily, first counselor in the Richmond Virginia Chesterfield Stake, noted, "As I travel outside this country as a clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, I realize that Thomas Jefferson not only had an impact on this nation, but his work continues to impact the world, as other nations consider the value of religious freedom and other liberties."

National Religious Freedom Day was first commemorated Jan. 16, 1993, after U.S. President George Bush signed the first proclamation. Since then, proclamations commemorating the National Religious Freedom Day have been signed in nearly 30 states.

"Others in the country simply don't know about National Freedom Day," Sister Poulsen said, encouraging members to petition their states to participate. Events supporting National Freedom Day are spearheaded by the Council For America's First Freedom, a council composed of religious and political leaders.

"Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States when Joseph Smith was born," explained Brother Sidwell.

"In 1820, the year of Joseph Smith's First Vision, Jefferson wrote in a letter, "I look forward to the day when the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored, such as it was preached and practiced by himself." (Letter of Thomas Jefferson to F.A. Van Der Camp, 1820.)