This past Monday was officially recognized not just as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but also as Religious Freedom Day. In 1993, Congress passed a resolution that directs the president to annually publicly declare January 16 as Religious Freedom Day, and that’s happened every year for the past 30 years.
Religious liberty protections in the United States were first established on January 16, 1786, when the Assembly in the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted into law the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson had drafted it in 1777 and introduced it into the Virginia Assembly in 1779. The statute, for lack of a better word, “disestablished” the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed religious freedom to people of all religious faiths or of no faith.
These are the opening words of this statute:
“An act for establishing religious Freedom. Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do….”
I hope you are immediately struck by the references to Almighty God, Lord, “holy author,” and “Almighty power.” Yes, there was a day when elected officials were not afraid to invoke God in a powerful, direct way, even in lawmaking.
Jefferson included a lot of verbiage about the importance of such a statute and the necessity for it and then gets to the enactment portion, which reads:
“Be it enacted by 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 opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” (Emphasis added.)
I hope you caught that last part because it is incredibly significant. Jefferson notes that future legislatures can override current legislation. Therefore, he notes that it would be of no effect to declare this act irrevocable.
He goes on to say that there is a law that is higher than manmade law, known as natural law. The right to hold and practice publicly and privately one’s religious beliefs is a natural right—in other words pre-existing human government, God-given. He says if a future legislature repeals the law the 1786 legislature passed or even made it narrower, then they will be infringing on a natural right. He wanted to be sure succeeding generations of elected officials understood the importance of natural law, in particular as it relates to religious freedom.
The original statute as passed in 1786 is still in Virginia’s statutes, and In 2016, the Virginia legislature reiterated its support for the original Religious Freedom Act.
One year later in 1787 when the constitutional convention convened, this Religious Freedom Statute became the foundation for what we know today as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Jefferson and the vast majority of our founders understood that religious liberty is an unalienable, God-given natural right. Unfortunately, far too many government officials don’t understand this today.
Over the past several years, religious liberty has been under relentless attack, especially under the Biden administration.
Christian cake shop owner Jack Phillips and graphic designer Lorie Smith are fighting for their religious liberty in court, representing all artists and business owners. A district court of appeals and the Supreme Court will soon weigh in on these monumental cases.
President Biden’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last August, expanded taxpayer funded abortion, a clear violation of Americans’ religious liberty and conscience rights.
Of course, the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, which was recently signed into law, undermines the religious liberty of those who hold a biblical view of marriage. These are just a few of many recent examples.
If religious liberty prevails it won’t be because of our politicians, but because of our parents and pastors. So in honor of Religious Freedom Day, take time to talk about this Congressionally designated day and what it means to someone in your life who is 25 or younger. Ask if they know about this day. Inquire about what they know and think about religious freedom. Take some time to inform and encourage at least one person in the younger generation to understand what religious freedom is and isn’t, and what Religious Freedom Day is about. To preserve this freedom that our founders called our First Freedom because it is foundational to all other freedoms, we are going to have to take seriously our personal responsibility to teach and defend this incredible liberty.