Each year, on January 16th, we commemorate the 1786 enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom by recognizing National Religious Freedom Day. The first legislation of its kind, Thomas Jefferson drafted the statute which declares 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.”
James Madison shepherded the Virginia Statute through the state legislature in 1786 and then carried these ideas with him to Philadelphia, where he would become the principal author of the Constitution and, later, the First Amendment. Together, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses guarantee the right to believe as we choose with the secure knowledge that the government will not grant special treatment to one particular faith or religion over nonreligion. Centuries later, Justice Elena Kagan would note the prevailing powers of this “breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
The United States, and the Constitution itself, have changed in immeasurable ways since Jefferson and Madison first wrote these words. The very notion of who was included among “all men” excluded millions of enslaved Africans, Indigenous peoples, and more during those formative years. Justice Kagan herself would not have enjoyed the protections that she and her colleagues now wield as members of the Supreme Court.
And yet, at every stage, idealistic and patriotic Americans have fought for a democracy that truly delivers on the promises embedded in our founding documents. An accurate telling of our collective history centers on this tireless organizing for justice and those who continue to work in solidarity to make this vision a reality.
Because of these activists’ commitment across generations, the First Amendment right to religious freedom no longer applies only to “men” – literally or according to the more narrow definition of the founders. We are not where we once were, but many groups are still unable to believe as they choose without fear of discrimination or harm.
As we mark this Religious Freedom Day, tribal leaders and activists seek legal protections for land sacred to Native American religious communities and are demanding mitigation efforts to limit damage that has already been inflicted. Faith-based voting rights groups face resistance from conservative political leaders and law enforcement as they build power in Black communities. And the Religious Right has seen major successes in its efforts to elevate the beliefs of some over the rights of all, undermining our ability to address the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
Progress does not simply happen but is demanded by those working across communities and movements to bring us closer to our highest ideals. In the coming year, may we move forward together and finally ensure that all Americans can join in the promise of religious freedom for all.
Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to protect true religious freedom.