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Why You Need to Know Our North Star of Religious Freedom

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What may be the most significant legislation in the history of religious freedom is not well known to most of us. And that needs to change.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and championed in the legislature by James Madison in 1786.

It is considered to be the forerunner to the approach taken by the framers of the Constitution and of the First Amendment regarding the proper relationship between citizens, government and powerful religious institutions.

Congress designated Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day in 1992 to commemorate the significance of the Virginia Statute in our history, laws and jurisprudence.

Proclamations issued by presidents since George H.W. Bush have been generally true to the spirit of the occasion. Until Donald Trump, that is.

Trump has used the occasion to promote the idea that religious freedom allows for ad hoc exemptions from the laws that apply to everyone else.

Christian nationalists and dominionists, who have conflated the idea of religious freedom with their theocratic aims, enjoy influence at the highest levels of government.

Thus, this is a darkening time for those of us who believe that religious freedom belongs to all of us and should not be used by government to enshrine selected religious doctrines in law.

The framers knew there’d be days like these. The theocrats and monarchists would be back.

But the framers also expected there would also be people like us – the non-theocratic Christians, free thinkers, deists and people of other religions who would insist on religious equality.

Now as then, we need to know we are all in this together.

Religious freedom understandably makes the rich and powerful nervous: It is one of the most liberatory and revolutionary ideas in the history of the world.

In colonial Virginia, the Anglican Church functioned as an arm of the British monarchy and held tight and often brutal control over religious activities in the Virginia colony.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom freed everyone from their grip in the wake of the revolution. Virginia Baptists and Presbyterians had fought on the side of the patriots for this.

Powerful interests might rather that we not remember the rise of an idea so powerful that it has not only helped topple tyrants but also has helped us envision democracy for all and for the ages.

And that is why we must not only remember but refresh and reclaim religious freedom in our time.

The key phrase in the Virginia Statute reads: “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.”

In a 21st century paraphrase, we might say, we are free to believe and express ourselves as we will and that our religious or irreligious identity neither advantages nor disadvantages us as citizens.

Religious Freedom Day (Jan. 16) affords us the opportunity to discuss all this – and to reclaim and renew this, the taproot of democracy, the best of our foundational past.

In that spirit, national organizations are promoting a model Religious Freedom Day proclamation or resolution for state and local executives and legislators.

It seeks to be true to the facts of history and the intentions of the statute while remaining unburdened by the many contemporary issues related to religious freedom.

Those promoting the model resolution include BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) and organizations from American Atheists to The Interfaith Alliance – members of the Blitz Watch Coalition.

The coalition was formed to combat the Christian nationalist and dominionist state legislative campaign called Project Blitz.

Last year, versions of the model resolution were introduced in the Minnesota State Senate and passed unanimously in the District of Columbia.

This year, Mayor William Peduto of Pittsburgh has already issued a mayoral proclamation based on the model.

This effort is partly in answer to bowdlerized Religious Freedom Day resolutions promoted by Project Blitz in state legislatures.

These tend to be more acts of religious boosterism than commemorations of the legislative overthrow of the Anglican Church in Virginia.

What’s more, in an act of historical erasure, a Religious Freedom Day resolution in the Kentucky State Senate and House failed to even mention the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

The founders knew that democracy looked good on paper, but that it was more aspirational than actual at the time.

The journey toward greater democracy has taken us a long way, and religious freedom remains our north star.

Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive, social justice think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts.