Religious Freedom Day
Yes we Americans have to have a proclamation for everything, so January 16th is declared Religious Freedom Day. On January 16, 1994, President Bill Clinton proclaimed and enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. For some the name implies that this is a day of religious worship and the web site ReligiousFreedom Day.com gives the impression that we need to have a festival:
Each year, the President declares January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day, and calls upon Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” The day is the anniversary of the passage, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
The goal of ReligiousFreedomDay.com is to promote and protect students’ religious expression rights by informing educators, parents, and students about these liberties.
Also, when you read the yearly proclamation statements made by both Clinton and George W. Bush, you not only get the historical information but one get the impression that it is a religious day.
That’s not exactly what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777 and passed by the Virginia Assembly on January 16, 1786. It is the basis for the separation of church and state, which led to freedom of religion for all Americans as stated in the First Amendment of U.S. Constitution.
It’s interesting that Clinton and Bush both proclaimed Religious Freedom Day when it already exists in the U.S. Constitution. The Virginia Assembly who enacted the original statue didn’t proclaim a special day.
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was written at a time when religion and clergy had a hold on society. Jefferson who had little trust of Christianity or the church wrote the statue not only to protect religion but to keep religion out of state affairs. Jefferson believed that religion undermined civil rights and liberties.
Divided into three paragraphs, the statute is a statement of Jefferson’s philosophy.
The first paragraph is both a statement of natural right and Jefferson’s deism — that is, the belief that God created the world and along with it, man’s capacity to rule himself. Deists believe that although God is the creator, He is not actively involved in worldly affairs. God has granted individuals freedom of conscience in religious matters and any attempt to limit or restrict it is wrong.
I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do . . .
The second paragraph is the act itself, which states that no person can be compelled to attend any church or support it with his taxes. It says that an individual is free to worship as he pleases with no discrimination.
II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
The third paragraph reflects Jefferson’s belief in the people’s right, through their elected assemblies, to change any law. Here, Jefferson states that this statute is not irrevocable because no law is (not even the Constitution). Future assemblies that choose to repeal or circumscribe the act do so at their own peril, because this is “an infringement of natural right.” Thus, Jefferson articulates his philosophy of both natural right and the sovereignty of the people.
III. And though we well know that this assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the act of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such as would be an infringement of natural right.
Jefferson was vilified by his political opponents for his role in the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and for his criticism of biblical truths.
Also, like many of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson rarely practiced Christian orthodoxy. Although they supported the free exercise of any religion and they understood the dangers of religion. Jefferson who had very strong opinions about religion In 1802 Jefferson sent a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association regarding religion and government;
- “Believing… that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” –Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, 1802. ME 16:281
Jefferson on Freedom of Religion:
- Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
So there it is, a day proclaimed yearly by two religious presidents for something that has existed in this country and in our founding documents for more than 200 years.
Further reading on Thomas Jefferson:
The Jefferson Legacy Foundation
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: University of Virginia Library
Jefferson Digital Archives: University of Virginia Library
The Thomas Jefferson Papaers: Library of Congress
Signers Of The Declaration of Independence: US History.org