Since 1993, the president has formally recognized January 16th as Religious Freedom Day. The day marks the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which cut formal ties between the Church of England and the state of Virginia.
In an age of hyper-partisanship, Religious Freedom Day offers all Americans — religious and nonreligious — an opportunity to celebrate and renew our commitment to safeguarding principles we have historically agreed on: religious liberty and conscience protection.
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and passed into law in 1786, the Virginia Statute disestablished the state church, abolished parish taxes, and protected the civil rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs without fear of censure or reprisal. A precursor to the First Amendment, the Virginia law recognized the pursuit of religious truth as a basic human good and acknowledged that citizens should be free to live out their faith without imposition from the government. The law also anticipated Article 6 of the Constitution, which states that there “shall be no religious test” for anyone seeking to serve in public office.
Because religious freedom is largely taken for granted today, it is easy to forget the radical nature of Jefferson’s proposal when he first made it 233 years ago. At a time when cuius regio, eius religio (Latin for “whose realm, his religion”) was still the dominant way of conceiving the relationship between church and state, Jefferson argued that religion is inherently an interior matter between an individual and God and that consequently, faith cannot be coerced. The state has no business interfering with man’s quest for religious truth because God, not the state, is Lord of the conscience.
Moreover, true faith requires sincere adherence to specific doctrines. The state cannot force anyone to believe. While people may feign belief to avoid punishment, the state can never effect genuine belief at the level of conscience. Therefore, civil authorities should allow the free flow of religious opinions and use persuasion, not coercion, to encourage belief in God.
Historically, America’s commitment to religious freedom has enjoyed broad support. In fact, in 1993, when the issue was again brought to the nation’s attention by the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) with a bipartisan consensus. Then-Congressman Charles Schumer drafted the House bill. In the Senate, the bill was introduced by Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.). The law passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and by a vote of 97-3 in the U.S. Senate and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
The high regard for religious freedom embodied in RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion, ensuring that people of faith can live out their beliefs in peace. Only a “compelling governmental interest” furthered in the least restrictive way can supersede a person’s religious claim. The law has protected members of minority religions as well as Christians. Nothing about this should be disagreeable to any American.
Unfortunately, as the LGBT movement has gained cultural ascendency, religious liberty is increasingly misunderstood. As an ever-larger percentage of society sees religious teachings on marriage and human sexuality as outdated, a growing number of people are ready to limit religious liberty. Today it is increasingly important to articulate what religious freedom is, and to explain why protections for religious belief and expression serve the common good.
Simply put, religious liberty is the freedom to live out one’s faith according to his or her deepest convictions. This means people have the right to believe what they want in terms of theology and doctrine and can live in a way that brings their life into conformity with these beliefs. Obviously, this does not mean people can do whatever they want under the guise of “religious liberty,” but it does mean that as much latitude as possible should be extended to those with sincere religious convictions about how to order their lives.
In recent years, there has been a subtle but significant shift in the language used to discuss religious freedom. Organizations such as the ACLU have used the phrase “freedom to worship” to imply that the Constitution only protects what takes place within the four walls of a church. However, the First Amendment states clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The “free exercise” wording protects people of faith whose religious beliefs require their faith to be lived out in all areas of life. When religious liberty is reduced to “freedom to worship,” the faithful increasingly find their beliefs subjected to the legal demands of the LGBT movement.
Thankfully, President Trump and his administration have worked to protect Americans’ religious liberty. As the president rightly stated in his proclamation last year, “No American — whether nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.”
Today, on Religious Freedom Day, people from all faith traditions should celebrate their religious liberty and recommit to the ongoing task of ensuring that America remains the brightest beacon of freedom when it comes to religious freedom and expression.