Great timing in 2015: January 16 is Religious Freedom Day in the U.S. Not a holiday (sadly), Religious Freedom Day commemorates the heritage of religious freedom in the U.S.
Statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
January 16 is the anniversary of the adoption of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. Thomas Jefferson drafted the law in 1779, in his work to create a body of new laws suitable for a new republic based on freedom. After the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the 13 independent states in America continued in a difficult federation. Patrick Henry in Virginia proposed in 1785 to roll back part of the Virginia Bill of Rights, and reestablish government paychecks to the clergy — partly to fund educated people in towns who could organize schools in their non-preaching hours, but partly to reestablish the church in government. Fellow legislator James Madison managed to delay consideration of the bill, urging such important matters needed time to develop public support.
Madison had other ideas. He composed a petition eventually signed by thousands of Virginians, the Memorial and Remonstrance, defending religious freedom and stating the necessity of separating church and state to preserve religious freedom. When the legislature reconvened in 1786, Henry had moved on to another term as governor; the legislature rejected Henry’s proposal and instead took up the bill Jefferson proposed earlier, and passed it.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom remains in effect, unaltered, today. It is generally regarded as the best statement on separation of state and church in law. Within a year Madison was shepherding the construction of a new charter for the 13 American states that would become the Constitution; and in 1789, Madison proposed a much-refined religious freedom amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified as the First Amendment in 1791.
Every January 16, we honor the work of defenders of religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Virginia Assembly, and all who work today to keep religious freedom alive.
President Barack Obama issued a proclamation for Religious Freedom Day:
January 15, 2015
Presidential Proclamation — Religious Freedom Day, 2015
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY, 2015
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BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
From many faiths and diverse beliefs, Americans are united by the ideals we cherish. Our shared values define who we are as a people and what we stand for as a Nation. With abiding resolve, generations of patriots have fought — through great conflict and fierce debate — to secure and defend these freedoms, irrevocably weaving them deep into the fabric of our society. Today, we celebrate an early milestone in the long history of one of our country’s fundamental liberties.
On January 16, 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted. It was one of the first laws in our Nation to codify the right of every person to profess their opinions in matters of faith, and it declares that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any” religion. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, this historic legislation served as a model for the religious liberty protections enshrined in our Constitution.
The First Amendment prohibits the Government from establishing religion. It protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear. This religious freedom allows faith to flourish, and our Union is stronger because a vast array of religious communities coexist peacefully with mutual respect for one another. Since the age of Jefferson and Madison, brave women and men of faith have challenged our conscience; today, our Nation continues to be shaped by people of every religion and of no religion, bringing us closer to our founding ideals. As heirs to this proud legacy of liberty, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to safeguard these freedoms.
We must also continue our work to protect religious freedom around the globe. Throughout the world, millions of individuals are subjected to discrimination, abuse, and sanctioned violence simply for exercising their religion or choosing not to claim a faith. Communities are being driven from their ancient homelands because of who they are or how they pray, and in conflict zones, mass displacement has become all too common.
In the face of these challenges, I am proud the United States continues to stand up for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace. Promoting religious freedom has always been a key objective of my Administration’s foreign policy because history shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people — including the freedom of religion — are ultimately more just, more peaceful, and more successful. In every country, individuals should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind — and of the heart and soul. Today, let us continue our work to protect this tradition and advance the cause of religious freedom worldwide.
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, 2015, 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 that show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand fifteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-ninth.