Friday, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring today Religious Freedom Day.
In 1992, a Joint Resolution from Congress requested then President George H.W. Bush to designate January 16 as Religious Freedom Day:
“Be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That January 16, 1993, is designated as “Religious Freedom Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to join together to celebrate their religious freedom and to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
According to an educational site devoted to Religious Freedom Day:
Each year, the President declares January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day, and calls upon Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” The day is the anniversary of the passage, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. We encourage schools to recognize Religious Freedom Day during the school week leading up to January 16.
Of his numerous accomplishments, the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was one Jefferson’s favorite accomplishments and one of three he requested be included in his epithet. The other two being founding the University of Virginia and of course, penning the Declaration of Independence.
Drafted in 1777, Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was not enacted until 1786. Contrary to popular belief, our Constitution does not itself provide for the oft quoted, “separation of church and state.” It prohibits the federal government from recognizing a state religion (see Britain and the Anglican Church). “Separation of church and sate” was a phrase used by Jefferson (most notably in his now dubbed “wall of separation letter” of 1802 where he addressed the Danbury Baptist Association, explaining why he would not issue proclamations of thanksgiving and fasting as did his predecessors) and best articulated in the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom.
I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and 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 his Almighty power to do.
II. 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.
III. 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 act of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be 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 as would be an infringement of natural right.
January 16, 1993, President Bush issued the first Religious Freedom Day proclamation:
And Religious Freedom Day continues to this day. Beneath is President Obama’s Religious Freedom Day Proclamation of 2016:
Since our country’s founding, religious freedom has been heralded as one of our most cherished ideals. The right to practice religion freely has brought immigrants from all over the world to our shores, often in the face of great adversity, so they could live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their consciences. Some of America’s earliest settlers, the Pilgrims, arrived at our shores in search of a more tolerant society, free from religious persecution. Since that time, people of many religious traditions have added their own threads to the fabric of our Nation, helping advance a profound and continuous vindication of the idea of America.
When the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted on January 16, 1786, it formed a blueprint for what would become the basis for the protection of religious liberty enshrined in our Constitution. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the statute proclaims 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.” The First Amendment prohibits Government from establishing religion, and it protects the free exercise of every faith. Our Government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. The United States stands for the protection of equal rights for all people to practice their faith freely, without fear or coercion, and as Americans, we understand that when people of all religions are accepted and are full and equal members of our society, we are all stronger and freer.
Our commitment to religious freedom has fostered unprecedented religious diversity and freedom of religious practice. But these ideals are not self-executing. Rather, they require a sustained commitment by each generation to uphold and preserve them. Here at home, my Administration is working to preserve religious liberty and enforce civil rights laws that protect religious freedom — including laws that protect employees from religious discrimination and require reasonable accommodation of religious practices on the job. We will keep upholding the right of religious communities to establish places of worship and protecting the religious rights of those so often forgotten by society, such as incarcerated persons and individuals confined to institutions. We will also continue to protect students from discrimination and harassment that is based on their faith, and we will continue to enforce hate crime laws, including those perpetrated based on a person’s actual or perceived religion. This work is crucial, particularly given the recent spike in reports of threats and violence against houses of worship, children, and adults simply because of their religious affiliation.
As we strive to uphold religious freedom at home, we recognize that this basic element of human dignity does not stop at our shores, and we work to promote religious freedom around the globe. We are working with a broad coalition against those who have subjected religious minorities to unspeakable violence and persecution, and we are mobilizing religious and civic leaders to defend vulnerable religious communities. In addition, we are calling for the elimination of undue restrictions on religious liberty, coordinating with governments around the world to promote religious freedom for citizens of every faith, and expanding training for our diplomats on how to monitor and advocate for this freedom. All people deserve the fundamental dignity of practicing their faith free from fear, intimidation, and violence.
On Religious Freedom Day, let us recommit ourselves to protecting religious minorities here at home and around the world. May we remember those who have been persecuted, tortured, or murdered for their faith and reject any politics that targets people because of their religion, including any suggestion that our laws, policies, or practices should single out certain faiths for disfavored treatment. And as one Nation, let us state clearly and without equivocation that an attack on any faith is an attack on every faith and come together to promote religious freedom for all.
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, 2016, 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 sixteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fortieth.
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