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
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:
- Acting on its religious beliefs about marriage, a Christian
ministry in New Jersey chose not to rent a facility to a lesbian
couple for a civil union ceremony. After the women accused the
ministry of discriminating against them, the state of New Jersey
revoked a tax exemption for the facility and found probable cause
that the ministry had violated a state nondiscrimination law.
- A photographer in New Mexico declined to photograph a same-sex
commitment ceremony on the grounds that doing so would violate the
photographer's religious beliefs about marriage. After the lesbian
couple filed a complaint, the New Mexico Human Rights Commission
found the photographer guilty of violating a nondiscrimination law
and imposed thousands of dollars in costs.
- In Georgia, a lesbian woman sought advice from a professional
counselor on how to improve her relationship with her lesbian
partner. The counselor did not have a problem counseling gays and
lesbians but felt it would have violated her religious beliefs to
specifically help a lesbian woman improve her romantic relationship
with another woman. The counselor was fired by her employer for
referring the lesbian woman to a colleague instead of counseling
the woman herself.
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
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
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
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