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US celebrates its most misread freedom

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It may be America's most important gift to the world. It began 220 years ago this week. Yet many Americans, it seems, still don't understand what it entails. It's the country's unique experiment in religious freedom, rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

As the first historic act in the experiment - the 1786 Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom - is celebrated in Richmond Wednesday, many see that lack of understanding as a challenge for the growing religious and ideological diversity in the United States.

"While Americans do count freedom of religion as one of our most precious rights," says Audrey Smith, acting director of the Council for America's First Freedom, in Richmond, "many citizens aren't sure how they exercise those rights, or what is not allowed under our Constitution."

A national survey by the council in October, for instance, revealed a deep ambivalence about a fundamental principle of religious freedom: the separation of church and state.

While 47 percent of those polled said it is important to keep the traditional principle, 27 percent said it should be less strictly interpreted, and 23 percent said "there is really no need to separate church and state."

"I think folks don't understand what that means," Ms. Smith says. The separation is what makes religious freedom possible.

Another popular misperception relates to religious freedom in public schools. In the 2005 State of the First Amendment poll, 50 percent of respondents said students have "too little religious freedom." Yet students are free to pray individually or in groups, to form religious clubs and publications, to express religious views in their school assignments, and wear religious messages on their clothing. Unfortunately, many educators are unfamiliar with those rights, though the government has issued guidelines.


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