On this day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the statute would help shape the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which today (largely) protects the rights of religious minorities from the tyranny of the majority.
“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.”
In honor of that statute’s passage, United States Presidents, starting with Bill Clinton in 1993, have proclaimed this day Religious Freedom Day. Here’s an excerpt from President Obama’s 2011 proclamation.
“The writ of the Founding Fathers has upheld the ability of Americans to worship and practice religion as they choose, including the right to believe in no religion at all. However, these liberties are not self-sustaining, and require a stalwart commitment by each generation to preserve and apply them. Throughout our Nation’s history, our founding ideal of religious freedom has served as an example to the world. Though our Nation has sometimes fallen short of the weighty task of ensuring freedom of religious expression and practice, we have remained a Nation in which people of different faiths coexist with mutual respect and equality under the law. America’s unshakeable commitment to religious freedom binds us together as a people, and the strength of our values underpins a country that is tolerant, just, and strong.”
Naturally, some Christian groups have tried to hijack the day and its true meaning, telling educators that Religious Freedom Day isn’t “celebrate-our-diversity-day,” but that shouldn’t prevent religious minorities from stepping forward on this day and celebrating the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities handed down to us by our Founding Fathers.
And remember, the Statute means all religions – not just Christian faiths. When the measure was being deliberated, an attempt was made to limit its protections to Christians only. That failed. When he learned of this, Jefferson rejoiced. He later wrote that he was pleased that this gambit “was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
Despite the efforts of some revisionists, religious freedom in the United States was always meant to include us. The Hindu, the non-Christian, the “infidel of every denomination,” are protected under law. The moment we stop believing that, and stop fighting to have religious freedom mean all religions, not just the popular ones, we cede ground to those who would twist the meanings of Jefferson and the Founders to their benefit. As Pagans, we should stand up, speak out, and remind everyone that religious freedom, if it is to have any meaning at all, includes and protects us all.