Religious Freedom Day, 16 January 2015

Each year since 1993 the President has declared January 16th to be “Religious Freedom Day,” in order to remember the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. President Obama has not yet issued his proclamation this year [Edit: now available] but will likely do so today.

Jefferson’s statute continues to be a strong expression for the value of religious liberty even today. Though the statute has been discussed in many places and in great depth, there are two important points to take from the statute. First, [emphasis added]

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.

Jefferson clearly believed religious freedom allowed men to maintain — and profess — their beliefs without impact to their civil roles. Those civil roles would likely include those who serve in government — including the military, though the concept of a standing military was foreign to the US at the time.

The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind…

Jefferson’s statute, written before the US Constitution, reminds us religious freedom does not come from any document written by the hand of man. As President Obama once said himself:

[The statute] was a statement of principle, declaring freedom of religion as the natural right of all humanity — not a privilege for any government to give or take away.

Religious freedom is a natural right; it is a human liberty. Despite the claims of some critics, the US Constitution, awesome document though it is, is not the source of religious freedom (or any other liberty, for that matter). The Constitution simply attempts to protect man’s natural right of religious freedom (from the federal government). Thus, though Jefferson is often (mistakenly) lauded for his description of a “separation of church and state,” his statute indicates even he believed in a moral concept greater than the Constitution.

The religious freedom protected by the US Constitution results in an amazing array of public ideological and theological differences. That’s a good thing, and America should hold that up to the world as a model.

As annually published.