January 16, 2009 | WebMemo on Religion and Civil Society
Since 1993, the President has annually proclaimed January 16 "Religious Freedom Day" This commemoration marks the passage on January 16, 1786, of a significant document authored by Thomas Jefferson: the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The 2009 proclamation by President Bush encourages all Americans to "reflect on the great blessing of religious liberty" and "endeavor to preserve this freedom for future generations"
This proclamation is timely, as religious freedom faces new challenges in current public policy debates, particularly concerning the definition of marriage. Preserving this freedom for future generations should be a concern of citizens and government at all levels.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
Thomas Jefferson penned the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777 and saw it become law in 1786. He considered it one of the most important accomplishments of his life. In fact, he listed the statute alongside the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia as the achievements to be included in his epitaph.
According to Jefferson, people have a "natural right" to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences. Using the force of law either to coerce professions of faith or to deny civil rights because of them is wrong. Such an approach, argued Jefferson, tends to "beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness," as people are tempted to lie about their religious beliefs to avoid punishment or gain reward.
Jefferson thought that such laws were not only unfair but actually harmful to the integrity of faith. Withholding civil rights because of one's religious convictions "tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage," wrote Jefferson. Thus, it is essential to protect people's ability to openly discuss and debate their beliefs in public and to freely support the church of their choosing.
The impact of the statute was significant. It helped set the course for the religious freedom principles that would become enshrined in many state constitutions as well as in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. By choosing to proclaim each January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, the President acknowledges the enormous contribution the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom made to America's understanding and enjoyment of freedom today.
Religious Freedom in America Today
Today there are troubling signs that the ability of people to express their religious beliefs without fear of penalty is eroding. This is especially apparent concerning the traditional belief that marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman.
The following examples have arisen in the past few years:
Legal scholars predict that cases like these are "merely a foretaste" of what religious institutions can expect for taking similar stands against homosexual conduct and same-sex marriage.
The Importance of Religious Freedom
On Religious Freedom Day, Presidents typically call upon the American people not only to celebrate and honor but also to reflect. Reflecting on religious freedom can improve our awareness and appreciation not only of its positive value but also of what is at stake in allowing it to erode.
First, religious freedom provides the opportunity to acknowledge that the state's authority is not ultimate. Obligations to God are the most fundamental obligations in human life; they are, in James Madison's words, "precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society" Thus, Madison declared that one's civic duties should be pursued "with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign"
The Framers placed religious freedom as the "first freedom" of the Bill of Rights. They believed that a government not willing to respect citizens' religious freedom would be unlikely to respect other freedoms as well. Our nation should heed their concern as more cases arise of government penalizing charities, professionals, and private business owners for honoring their religious convictions.
Religious freedom can also draw our attention to the valuable contribution that religious groups make to society. For example, churches and faith-based institutions are essential in cultivating the virtuous habits necessary for self-government. They also do laudable work in tackling social problems and caring for the needy. Government regulations that would prohibit individuals and organizations from honoring their religious convictions or penalize them for doing so can discourage the very thing that often motivates these individuals and organizations and makes them effective in helping people: their distinctive religious identity and convictions. Thus, religious adherents are not the only ones affected when religious freedom is undermined; those who are served by such groups lose out too.
Time for Reflection and Recommitment
Given these considerations, Religious Freedom Day is a good reminder to all Americans to reflect -- on January 16 and throughout the year -- on the religious freedom our nation enjoys. This is an important time, in particular, for policymakers to recommit to protecting the ability of citizens to maintain their religious identity and freely express their religious beliefs.
Ryan Messmore is William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Press release, "Religious Freedom Day, 2009,"
White House Office of the Press Secretary, January 13, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/ne
ws/releases/2009/01/20090113-8.html (January 14, 2009).
references to the
Thomas M. Messner, "Same-Sex Marriage and the
Threat to Religious Liberty," Heritage Foundation
Backgrounder No. 2201, October 30, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/
Benjamin Franklin insisted that "only a
virtuous people are capable of freedom" George Washington argued
that virtue is unlikely to "prevail in exclusion of religious
principle" (see Washington, Farewell Address, as quoted in The
Founders' Almanac,ed. Matthew Spalding [Washington, D.C.: The
Heritage Foundation, 2002], pp. 191-192). This is why, in his
Religious Freedom Day proclamation in 1994, President Clinton noted
that "religious freedom helps to give America's people a character
independent of their government," an ethical character "without
which a democracy cannot survive" (see "Religious Freedom Day,
1994," White House Office of the Press Secretary, January 14, 1994,