Your calendar might not note this, but today is Religious Freedom Day, an event that celebrates passage of Thomas Jefferson’s pioneering Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia.
Some quick background: In 1784, Patrick Henry introduced a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have required all residents to pay a tax “for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or for some form of Christian worship.”
James Madison was alarmed. In fact, he called the Henry proposal “obnoxious on account of its dishonorable principle and dangerous tendency.”
So Madison swung into action. First, he used procedural moves to delay consideration of the bill until 1785. Then he reached for his quill pen and wrote a powerful document called “The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” (OK, maybe it could have used a sexier title.) This was essentially a list of 15 reasons why religion taxes threaten freedom.
Madison and his supporters circulated the Memorial throughout the state. Letters poured into the legislature denouncing Henry’s bill. There had been an election in the interim, and many of Henry’s supporters lost their seats. When the Henry bill came up for a vote, it was soundly defeated.
But Madison did not stop there. He used the momentum he had gained to push for passage of Jefferson’s religious freedom bill. Jefferson had first introduced it in 1779, but it languished. Seven years later, the time was right to make it law. The measure passed by a vote of 60-27 on Jan. 16, 1786. (Ironically, Jefferson was unable to vote for his own bill. He was living in Paris, serving as U.S. representative to France.)
There is a lot of good language in the Jefferson bill, but here’s the meat of it: “[N]o 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 Virginia Statute influenced the First Amendment and laid the groundwork for the separation of church and state. It strongly affected the course of religious liberty in America. Even today, it is an inspiration for people suffering under the yoke of religious oppression in other nations.
Religious Freedom Day isn’t treated like a major holiday in our society – don’t look for any mid-January parades! But it shouldn’t be overlooked. You can celebrate in your own way.
I recommend you read this excellent column by J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Walker, who has been a staunch ally of Americans United over the years, reminds us of the importance of secular government in defending religious freedom and prods believers to always rely on their own initiative – not the power of government – to spread their views.
Take one action today in support of church-state separation. Write your members of Congress or your state legislators and insist they stand strong for separation. Write a letter to the editor. Link to this blog post on Facebook or send a tweet about it. Tell a friend about Americans United.
Finally, resolve to keep standing up for church-state separation in these times when that principle is under severe attack by the Religious Right and the Catholic bishops. Vow to keep defending it. That way, every day can be Religious Freedom Day.