Religious Freedom Day, 2017
This year, Martin Luther King Day is also Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the realization of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an end to the state-established church in Virginia.
[This is an edited version of a post originally published on January 16, 2015]
THE VIRGINIA STATUTE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
In 1993 President George H. W. Bush declared January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day. January 16 was the date in 1786 when the Virginia House of Delegates passed Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. In 1992, on that date, Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder signed the first proclamation to that effect for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom was a revolutionary document. It ended the state-established church in Virginia and guaranteed religious liberty for all.
Be it enacted by the 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
In his proclamation, the first President Bush wrote:
“…we do well to acknowledge our debt to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These two men were instrumental in establishing the American tradition of religious liberty and tolerance. Thomas Jefferson articulated the idea of religious liberty in his 1777 draft Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia…James Madison later introduced and championed this bill in the Virginia House of Delegates, where it passed in 1786. Following the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, James Madison led the way in drafting our Bill of Rights.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT
The Virginia Statute became the basis for the First Amendment protection of religious liberty.
Jefferson understood the impact of his Virginia Statute. He understood that many people were against acknowledging religious liberty for everyone. In a column about Religious Freedom Day, Frederick Clarkson wrote:
Thomas Jefferson was well aware that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens Religious Freedom Day, 2017 – Live Long and Prosper: