On Religious Freedom Day, Vow To Defend That Principle

Today the nation marks two significant holidays: We observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Religious Freedom Day.

We’ll have more to say about King's important -- and often overlooked -- views on separation of church and state later today on this blog. For now we'll look at Religious Freedom Day and why it’s important.

Religious Freedom Day isn’t as well-known as some other holidays – but it should be. The day marks the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a key development of church-state relations in the United States.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this particular piece of legislation. The Virginia Statute, scholars agree, strongly influenced the wording of the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses. Because the Virginia Statute was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and first introduced by him in 1779, it is closely associated with Jefferson. Indeed, Jefferson considered it one of his most important accomplishments. But it never would have come to pass without the work of a key Jefferson ally: James Madison.

Support real religious freedom. James Madison would approve.

Prior to the passage of the law, Virginia had an established church – Anglicanism. All residents were required to support the church whether they belonged to it or not. Dissenting pastors who dared to preach their doctrines in public could be fined or imprisoned.

In 1774, Madison had seen that very thing – Baptist pastors in jail for the sake of conscience. He was infuriated by it and wrote to a friend in Philadelphia, “That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business.”

Years later, in 1786, Madison was able to rectify that situation. Madison had just led a successful effort to defeat a bill promoted by Patrick Henry that would have required all Virginians to pay a tax to support “teachers of the Christian religion.” He sensed that the time was right to resurrect Jefferson’s religious freedom bill and put an end to Virginian’s noxious combination of church and state. (Jefferson was living in Paris at the time, serving as U.S. ambassador there.)

Thanks to Madison’s work, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom became law on Jan. 16, 1786. It ended official government establishment of the Anglican Church and guaranteed religious freedom to all.

The heart of the law reads: “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.”

Consider the two concepts embedded in that bill: There will be no official establishment of religion, and religious freedom is granted to all. Where else do you see those principles? If your answer is the First Amendment, you receive a gold star.

That’s not surprising since Madison was a primary author of the First Amendment.

Religious freedom – the real thing as supported by Jefferson and Madison – is under fire these days by people who are trying to redefine it. They want to convert that principle into a device for harming others and taking away their rights.

We’ll undoubtedly see a lot of that over the next few years. On this Religious Freedom Day, the best thing you can do is resolve to stand up and fight for the principles in the Virginia Statute.