By ES HETHCOX
Amidst an unexpected flurry of snow and cancelled classes, the Department of Classics, Philosophy and Religion (CPR) hosted a two day conference on Mar. 22 and 23 in commemoration of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
The conference, titled “Religious Freedom in a Fractured America,” was organized by Professors Mehdi Aminrazavi and Jennifer Barry and took place as the department’s annual Jefferson Lecture. Since 2002, the CPR department has helped sponsor and host the Lecture in the effort to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s establishment of religious freedom in America.
In January 1777, Jefferson travelled to Fredericksburg, VA and with a small cohort of men drafted what would become the Bill to Establish Religious Freedom in Virginia (commonly referred to as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom). According to CPR department chair Dr. Craig Vasey, the statue provides American citizens protection and freedom in religious practices and worship. Since Fredericksburg was the drafting site for the statute, the city serves as a historical landmark in the development of religious freedom in America.
Because of the historical significance Fredericksburg shares with the statute and the controversial 2016 presidential election, Barry and Aminrazavi were inspired to address the growing religious intolerance in America which they have seen affecting members of the UMW community. They constructed this two day conference to address issues that religious groups in America are facing.
According to Barry, this conference is the department’s effort to address the growing religious intolerance which has affected members of not only the UMW community, but the public as well.
“Our own campus has been directly affected by the election in several ways,” Professor Barry said. “Our faculty face the uncertainty of the “Muslim” ban temporarily stayed by the US courts. And our students have felt the effects of growing anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ hate speech and acts across campus.”
The speakers of this year’s event, hand selected by members of the department, came from various disciplines and professional backgrounds and brought different perspectives and solutions to issues related to Religious Freedom in America. They presented on various subjects regarding religious freedom and participated in a round table discussion on Thursday night discussing the controversial Charlottesville protest on Aug. 12, 2017.
“I loved the round table event,” said CPR intern Mitchell J. “It gave me a greater understanding of the events that occurred and that are still going on in Charlottesville. Hearing from those who were on the front line really drove home the horror of it all. I really respect and thank those who fight everyday against those who want to spread hate.”
While the conference was open to the university community and public, UMW students were the majority of attendees. Several students enjoyed their experience and appreciated the conversation the conference instigated.
“I think this conference benefitted the UMW community because it gave the chance for interfaith dialogue and helped the community discuss life before and after the election in November of 2016,” said senior Matthew Crawford.
Justine Purdy, a sophomore psychology major, attended multiple speaker panels and the round table event and appreciated listening to the presentation.
“Students asking good questions are good and important. But listening to these people who are experts or aspiring experts in this field was incredible,” Purdy said.