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Where religious freedom became founders’ pledge

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Earnest Custalow credits Virginia’s settlers with setting him on a path toward the ministry.

Had European wars over religion not driven those settlers to a new land seeking freedom of religion, they wouldn’t have met his ancestor Chief Powhatan, said Custalow, pastor of Grace Church of Fredericksburg. Nor would his many-times great-aunt Pocahontas have converted to Christianity, he said, becoming “the first convert to Christianity on these shores.”

Custalow was one of several local ministers who spoke at Fredericksburg’s annual Religious Freedom Day ceremony.

Both original speakers, Republican lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson and attorney Herbert Titus, had to cancel, said other speakers.

The annual ceremony celebrates the fact that it was in Fredericksburg, more than 230 years ago, that Thomas Jefferson helped write what would become the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

The statute outlines the freedom to believe in any religion, or none, and says the government shall neither force a religion upon someone nor punish him for what he believes.

For 40 years, the day has been celebrated in Fredericksburg at a ceremony led by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization.

Members of that group led a parade to Fredericksburg’s Thomas Jefferson Religious Freedom Monument on Washington Avenue.

The parade also included a group from Redeemer Lutheran Church, a Cub Scout troop and members of the Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason, which includes agnostics and atheists.

The Fredericksburg CoR group asked to also be included in those sitting on a platform at the ceremony, but was denied.

The speakers were mostly ministers, delivering Christian-based messages, thankful that America’s founders did not mandate a religion upon the populace.

Douglas Kittredge, pastor of New Life in Christ Church in Fredericksburg, said the statute prevents government from imposing upon people views they may not hold. It also requires the government to protect freedom of speech, Kittredge said.

He and others also said they believe government religious mandates do nothing to promote faith, because believers must be persuaded, not forced.

“The government should not interfere with the preaching of the gospel in any way because the truth will win out,” Custalow said.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028