Perhaps it’s because we Americans are still getting over Christmas, or talking about the Super Bowl, but National Religious Freedom Day doesn’t get a lot of press. But indeed: January 16 is National Religious Freedom Day, adopted originally by the state of Virginia and now remembered annually by the White House. Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Statute for Religious Freedom reads, in part:
Be it enacted by 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 opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. 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 acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act 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 act will be an infringement of natural right.
This is just the thing we Americans are so proud of: not compelling anyone to worship, making sure the government cannot enact a law regarding religion and worship, etc. President Obama (as presidents before him have done) released a statement on January 16 recognizing National Religious Freedom Day:
Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.
America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.
One is left to wonder, however; did the president really read Jefferson’s statute? The whole thing? All of it? Because I read this:
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…
As I wrote here, Thomas Jefferson (a man no one could accuse of being a by-the-Book Christian) took great pains to make sure that religious freedom stood firm in our nation as it was expanding in size, ethnicity, education, medical care, and care for the poor. Yet, he didn’t ask Americans to foot the bill for the Ursuline Sisters of France as they set up their schools and hospitals. That would have violated his ideals, and the statute he had written. He knew it was wrong to compel a person to pay for something that person didn’t believe in, something that went against one’s religious beliefs, to pay for the “sinful and tyrannical.”
As we observe this day, let us celebrate America’s legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 16, 2014, as Religious Freedom Day. I call on all Americans to commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty, and show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.
I wish the echo of Jefferson’s voice, “That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…,” were just a bit louder.