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2/17/03 - PRESIDENTS’ DAY - 2003-02-20

Today [February 17th] is being celebrated as Presidents’ Day in the United States. It is a day to honor all of America’s presidents -- beginning with George Washington, the first president. Along with Abraham Lincoln, another great president, Washington was born in the month of February.

George Washington achieved lasting fame for leading Americans to victory in their long war for independence from Britain. Washington played a decisive role in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the establishment of the American government. And as the country’s first president, he set an example of unselfish service and forbearance in the use of power that won the admiration of the world.

Washington's leadership in peace and war was marked by his profound religious faith and his tolerance for the beliefs of others. A devout Christian, Washington believed that God was the source from which legitimate government derives authority and human rights are derived. One of the most important of these was the right to freedom of religion.

In a letter to Baptists in Virginia, who were once persecuted by the colonial authorities, Washington wrote, "no one will be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against every species of religious persecution." A Protestant, Washington appointed Roman Catholics to important positions and spoke out against anti-Catholic prejudice.

In a letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island, he said the United States gives to religious "bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." To American Quakers, he wrote, "the liberty enjoyed by the people of these states of worshipping Almighty God agreeable to their consciences is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights."

To Washington, tolerance was not in conflict with faith. True faith, in his view, required respect for the fundamental rights of others. In his farewell address, he urged Americans ever to act in accordance with their religious beliefs. "Observe good faith and justice towards all nations," Washington said. "Religion and morality [require] this conduct."