Yesterday, January 16th, was National Religious Freedom Day. I’d never heard about it before I read about it on the Grand Overseer. The cynic in me thought this day was a recent political ploy to garner support for (majority) religious expression. But I was happily wrong. National Religious Freedom Day has been commemorated by every president since 1993. and you can read all these commemoration speeches on ReligiousFreedomDay.com. Starting with Bill Clinton, every president has asked us to reflect upon what religious freedom really means and how it is really practiced.
The day is an observance on Thomas Jefferson’s passing of legislation in Virginia that would profoundly shape our constitution.
National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. This vital document became the basis for the establishment clause, and led to freedom of religion for all Americans as protected in the religion clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.” — Wikipedia
It took Jefferson nine years to get the legislation passed in Virginia. It was pretty bold legislation IMO, given the time period when it was introduced and passed.
Its passage concluded a ten-year campaign in Virginia to disestablish the Church of England, which had been the official state church of the colony since the first English settlers arrived in 1607. Baptists led the campaign, joined by Presbyterians and others during the American Revolution, which over time became a push to provide full freedom of religious belief and practice to all Virginians, including Catholics, Jews, and other people who were not Protestant Christians.” – Library of Virginia
Disestablish has a particular religious meaning; it means the status of a church as a national church is officially stripped. The meat of the statute is at the end — I’ll get to that in a minute. But there are some zingers throughout. Interestingly, the statute opens with, “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free…” A modern reading of this might find it antithetical, but we have to remember the time at which this was written. I think this is my favorite zinger:
“That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time” — A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom
“Impious presumption,” “being themselves but fallible and uninspired men,” and “hath established and maintained false religions…through all time.” Damn. Jefferson sounds pissed!
As I said, the of heart the legislation is near the end:
“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.” — A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom
This “heart” was the precursor to the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — U.S. Constitution
Pretty lofty stuff. Pretty important stuff. Pretty much the stuff that has led to Pagans coming out of the broom closet. I’m often in awe of our forefathers and their ability for foresight. This is one of moments for me. I know our forefathers were “themselves fallible,” but they still impress me. Did you know yesterday was Freedom of Religion Day? Did you do anything in observance?
+ Featured image, oil on canvas painting of Thomas Jefferson circa 1786.