Chevalier de la Barre Day
Mainly a French observance, Chevalier de la Barre Day is a day that can be celebrated by anyone who opposes religious oppression. The annual commemoration marks the execution of the Chevalier de la Barre for impiety on July 1, 1766.
Jean-Francois de la Barre (known as the "Chevalier de la Barre", because he held the formal title of Chevalier or "knight") became a symbol of religious injustice after being tortured and killed for impiety, including the possession of banned books by Voltaire.
Voltaire, one of the most famous writers of his day and a leading critic of the Catholic Church, helped make the case of the Chevalier De La Barre into a cause célèbre. Voltaire was especially haunted by 'this sentence so execrable, and at the same time so absurd, which is an eternal disgrace to France', because a key piece of evidence used against La Barre was his possession of Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary".
La Barre and two others were accused of defacing a crucifix in the French town of Abbeville. There were no eye witnesses to the act, but after constant and continued harassment by clergy, churchgoers remember three youths who had not removed their hats when a Catholic procession passed by. At this time religion controlled all aspects of people's lives. The fear of excommunication was far too great, so people identified the three young men who were viewed as anticlerical. Once the charges were put forth by the courts, one of the youths fled to Holland, and one was only 15 and simply fined; only the 19 year old La Barre remained. When a search of his home revealed three forbidden books, including Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary," the courts and the church had their ideal suspect. La Barre was tortured mercilessly, had his tongue cut out for the crime of singing lewd songs, was then decapitated, and eventually burned on a pyre along with his copy of Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary."
In 1905, a statue of Jean-Francois, Chevalier de la Barre was built in Montmartre, on the outskirts of Paris. It was removed in 1941 and melted down for munitions for the Nazi war effort – while statues of saints and kings were left intact.
In France, Chevalier de la Barre Day often features demonstrations in his memory. Today, freethinkers in France and the West experience large amounts of freedom in their lives, but freethinkers are still tortured and killed for their beliefs in many other countries. Chevalier de la Barre Day is therefore a day to remember all those men and women persecuted by religion and to campaign for the rights of those still being persecuted today.