Superb Statute: Celebrate Religious Liberty January 16

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is all about your right to choose your own faith instead of having one imposed on you by government.

Jan. 16 is National Religious Freedom Day.

The day was created by Congress in 1993, and every year the president issues a proclamation. (The 2011 proclamation hasn’t been released yet, but you can read the 2010 one here.) The day is designed to commemorate the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786.

The Statute, penned by Thomas Jefferson and pushed through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, disestablished the Anglican Church, banned church taxes and extended religious freedom to all. Considered a precursor to the First Amendment, the Statute is a key document in the development of church-state separation. It’s absolutely worth celebrating.

Alas, some Religious Right organizations are trying to use the day to promote their misguided ideas about the role of religion in public schools and government. One group, Gateways to Better Education, asserts on its website “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.’”

Actually, it is. If the Gateways people would actually take the time to reflect on Jefferson’s Statute, they would see that it’s all about your right to choose your own faith instead of having one imposed on you by government.

The Statute guarantees 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.”

Its net effect was to let a thousand theological flowers bloom. Prior to the Statute, people could be imprisoned in Virginia for publicly preaching doctrines that clashed with the established church. The Statute ended that and allowed all people to practice and share their faiths.

That sure sounds like diversity to me. And it’s a good thing.

And remember, the Statute means all religions – not just Christian faiths. When the measure was being deliberated, an attempt was made to limit its protections to Christians only. That failed. When he learned of this, Jefferson rejoiced. He later wrote that he was pleased that this gambit “was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.” (Yes, non-believers and skeptics – Jefferson’s got your back!)

You can celebrate National Religious Freedom Day by reading the Virginia Statute. In addition, here are some comments on religious liberty by Jefferson and Madison that you might enjoy.

And don’t forget that many members of the clergy worked alongside Jefferson and Madison to end state-sponsored religion and free the human spirit. One of my favorites was the fiery Baptist preacher John Leland – an unsung hero of religious freedom who personally labored to end state-established churches in three states. Read more about Leland here.

You can also celebrate National Religious Freedom Day by educating your fellow Americans. This resource published by Americans United gives accurate information about the role of religion in public schools. Pass a copy on to your favorite public school teacher or administrator.

Finally, here is the most important thing you can do to celebrate National Religious Freedom Day: Remember that there are people and groups in this country who, despite all of their talk about how much they respect religious liberty, believe only their religion is true and correct, and thus think they have the right to impose it on you through government action.

Honor the spirit of Jefferson, Madison and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom by redoubling your efforts to oppose them.

P.S. For a fuller treatment of the development of religious freedom in America, I recommend The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore and my own Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church & State. For a look at contemporary church-state issues, try Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn’s Piety & Politics. (Also, the 2011 White House proclamation is out and can he read here.)