Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, believed that young people could change the world. More than a century ago she noted how rapidly the gospel of Jesus could be taken to the world with an “army” of rightly trained youth. 1 Incidentally, Ellen White was only a teenager herself—just 17 years old—when she began a lifetime of Christian ministry.
Adventists still believe that young people can and will change the world. It was this vision that inspired Norm Farley, a retired Adventist minister, to develop a plan whereby young people could become champions of religious freedom. Inspired by the Presidential Classroom model, Farley set out to create a similar program for Christian young people. He wanted a program that would educate top-quality students to understand the roots of religious freedom and nurture these young people to become thought leaders and advocates for liberty of conscience. His vision was to pass the torch of religious freedom to the next generation, and this eventually led to something called Freedom Classroom.
Seventh-day Adventists see freedom of conscience and religion as the very core of the good news of the liberation Christ brought and therefore central to their mission. God is love, and because of that love He created human beings with freedom to worship Him or not. Although freedom is often abused, God still respects the choices of His creatures to decide their ultimate destiny. Hence, Adventists have historically been advocates of freedom of conscience for all, religious and nonreligious alike. They have also advocated for separation between church and state, as history shows that uniting the two inevitably leads to freedom of conscience being violated.
Freedom Classroom: How It Works
What exactly is Freedom Classroom? Norm Farley’s original vision was for motivated and talented high school students to participate in a classroom experience followed by an annual 10-day trip to visit Washington, D.C.-area historical sites, along with lectures and advocacy in the nation’s capital.
In 2013 the Church State Council took the lead with Freedom Classroom and sponsored a trip to Washington, D.C., for several young people from the Pacific Union Conference. Dennis Seaton, legislative director for the Church State Council, and Natalie Eva, legislative assistant, organized the trip. Alan Reinach, the Church State Council’s executive director, led the trip along with a group of sponsors.
Reinach’s passionate belief in the mission of Freedom Classroom is evident. “Reaching the youth is always critical for every cause,” he notes. “The youth are tomorrow’s leaders, but they can also make a huge impact today. They have tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and are forming interests and habits that will stay with them for a lifetime.”
Reinach’s personal passion for the mission of Freedom Classroom stems from his own experience as a young person. During his youth he was nurtured in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, and the experience was a formative one. “We saw that the people really do have power to achieve great things, despite the odds, and the forces arrayed against us,” he recalls.
The Freedom Classroom Tour
On June 11, 2013, a group of 17 young people and sponsors flew to Washington, D.C., for what would be a tightly scheduled 10 days of fun-filled learning.
On day 1 of the tour, the students were treated with a visit to Montpelier, James Madison’s home on the outskirts of Orange, Virginia. A young person himself when his political career began, Madison has been called the “Father of the Constitution.” He was instrumental in drafting the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. During the tour of Madison’s home, the students gave special attention to his authorship of the First Amendment, with its guarantee of separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion.
Another document studied by the Freedom Classroom scholars at Madison’s home was A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments that Madison wrote in 1785 to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s General Assembly. In it Madison argued against clergy and religious teachers being paid with public tax dollars. Madison, who in a few years would pen the words of the First Amendment, here delineated his views on what he meant by the phrase “an establishment of religion.” Perhaps one paragraph in Memorial and Remonstrance expresses his views most clearly. In it Madison wrote the following:
“If Religion be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. . . . A just . . . Government needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.”2
Another highlight of the trip included a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s sprawling hilltop estate called Monticello. Jefferson was another key Founder whose views also shaped America’s religious liberty landscape. Although Jefferson was a proponent of personal and religious liberty, and despite his writings against slavery, he was an enigmatic character in that he held more than 100 hundred enslaved persons at any given time at Monticello.
In Colonial Williamsburg the students encountered life as it was for the pre-Revolutionary colonists. Students were able to read parts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document that proved to be a template for bills of right in other colonies. Colonist and lawyer George Mason, a forward-thinking intellectual and proponent of religious freedom, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. The Declaration’s religion clause built upon John Locke’s seminal ideas concerning religious freedom, stating that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless, under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society. And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other.”3
On Saturday the students spoke for the early-morning service at the Seventh-day Adventist church in Manassas, Virginia. Each student expounded on a Scripture text that related to freedom of conscience and shared a historical or personal story that helped the audience to understand how the scriptural principle applies today. Alan Reinach spoke for the worship service. In his talk he highlighted religious freedom in the context of current societal trends and Bible prophecy. He reminded the congregation that the moral and spiritual decay in society is primarily attributable to the church, not to Hollywood or the nation’s politicians, as it is the church that is responsible for building up spirituality in the world. “The church needs to repent and seek the Holy Spirit’s power,” Reinach noted, instead of seeking the power of the state to regenerate society.
In the afternoon, students had the opportunity to walk along the Washington Mall and visit the Smithsonian. An exhibit on slavery and the 1960s civil rights movement captivated their attention. Freedom, the students learned, comes with a price. And many brave and visionary souls have sacrificed their lives in the history of the American republic to purchase the freedom we enjoy today.
The next day, students toured Harpers Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal armory proved to be the spark that led to the Civil War. Students were also able to sit in the classrooms at Storer College, a one-time historically Black college. This was an institution where former slaves, who had been forbidden to read or write, learned how to do exactly that and were taught trades and skills that allowed them to become independent members of society.
Freedom Classroom students were then able to take part in the North American Religious Liberty Association’s annual religious freedom summit and lobby day. Part of the activities involved visiting congressional offices and promoting HR 301, a bill that directed the President to appoint a special envoy within the Department of State to promote the religious freedom of religious minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia. (Students later were excited to learn that the bill was passed by both houses of Congress.)
Additionally, the Freedom Classroom group was graciously invited to Senate chaplain Barry Black’s office for a visit with the chaplain. Black shared his personal story of advancing to chief of chaplains in the United States Navy and finally to chaplain of the United States Senate. Black also gave the students three pieces of advice. First, he said, purpose in your heart like the prophet Daniel not to defile yourself. Second, trust God for favor with people, and third, strive for excellence. More than one trip participant commented that the visit with the chaplain was the highlight of the whole Freedom Classroom trip.
The tour then took students to the Supreme Court, where they learned about the judicial branch of our federal government. Students were also exposed to advocacy groups from both sides of the aisle and briefed on their interpretation of current religious liberty and social justice issues. First, students were graciously hosted by the American Center for Law and Justice, where they heard the Christian Right’s perspective on modern social and religious liberty issues and were able to interact and ask questions. The next day J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, hosted speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sikh Coalition, the American Jewish Coalition, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The students were able to hear the perspectives of those on the political and religious left regarding religious liberty issues of the day and to ask questions. Satchel Genobaga, a Freedom Classroom student from California, observed that the “in-depth conversations with prominent people about current issues” made the tour a “unique and enriching experience.”
The trip finale was a visit to the Holocaust Museum, where students experienced a poignant example of what happens when freedom dies. Heinrich Heine’s words written on the wall of the museum—“Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned”—reinforced to students the important part that knowledge and truth play in the struggle for every kind of freedom. Freedom Classroom students left the museum with the smell of shoe leather from thousands of victims’ shoes lingering in their nostrils—reminding students of the awful realness of this tragic and recent event.
In reflecting on the trip, Dennis Seaton observed that the Freedom Classroom tour “was an opportunity for the next generation of young Seventh-day Adventists to understand that in order to have the freedoms we have as a nation we must be a nation that practices religious freedom.”
Freedom Classroom Today
Since the first trip in June 2013, Freedom Classroom has evolved into much more than just an annual tour. Sponsored by the Church State Council, it has expanded to include annual lobby days for students of all grade levels and educational visits to government lawmakers at the California state capitol.
Even with all the changes, the original vision for Freedom Classroom lives on. “Defending liberty of conscience is not just a noble cause—it is a cause that reflects the nature and character of the Creator,” notes Alan Reinach. “As Thomas Jefferson wrote: ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free.’ Eternal vigilance has always been the price of liberty. This is a lesson we hope to teach our youth through Freedom Classroom.”
At the Church State Council’s Sacramento, California office, Dennis Seaton and Natalie Eva have provided opportunities for scores of young people to become involved as advocates of liberty of conscience. Lobby days have been organized for students from Pacific Union College, who have lobbied for bills dealing with social justice issues such as human trafficking.
Additionally, since Freedom Classroom’s inception, four different Christian elementary schools have brought groups of school children to visit state legislators and learn about how their government works. Jared Shipp, an elementary school student from California, was amazed that students such as him could make a difference simply by sending letters and showing up. And that’s not the only difference young people make. Legislative staffers at the capitol fondly remember the Church State Council’s Seaton as the guy who brings groups of kids on visits. Seaton observes that while politicians may not always be inclined to listen to adults, young people certainly grab their attention.
Lea Gilbert, of Oakhurst Adventist Christian School, is one teacher who brought her students to Sacramento for an educational visit. She encourages all Adventist schools to take advantage of the Freedom Classroom experience. “Thanks again for all the thought and effort that went into making our trip to Sacramento a success,” she comments, “and for enlightening my students on the part they can play in preserving religious liberty in our country.”
The Freedom Classroom of the Future
What does the future hold for Freedom Classroom? Alan Reinach and Dennis Seaton are dreaming big and hope to see Freedom Classroom grow both in numbers as well as in vision. “Moving forward,” Seaton says, “Freedom Classroom will continue to form partnerships with schools, churches, and conferences to provide young people opportunities to be involved in religious liberty issues that affect their communities, states, and country. We will encourage our young people to meet with their elected officials seeking to form partnerships that will meet the needs of their communities.”
Young people are making a difference today through Freedom Classroom. The torch of religious liberty is being carried forward by youth who are catching the vision. But what if you can’t go on a Freedom Classroom trip—can you still make a difference in promoting liberty of conscience? Absolutely, says Seaton. Among other things, he recommends:
- forming a local North American Religious Liberty Association chapter
- touring your state’s capitol and getting to know your elected officials
- having a local “lobby day” at your state capitol
- visiting local offices of elected city, state, and federal officials
- becoming involved in social justice issues such as human trafficking, violence in your community, childhood hunger, etc.
Are you ready to get started with any of these ideas? Do you or a young person you know want to be involved in Freedom Classroom? Contact Natalie Eva at the Sacramento Church State Council office at email@example.com.
- Ellen G. White, Education, (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1903), p. 271.
- Robert A. Rutland, ed., The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792 (Chapel Hill, N.C.; University of North Carolina Press, 1970), vol. 1, p. 284.
Author: Stephen Allred
Stephen N. Allred writes from Yuba City, California.