Religious Freedom Day

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 16, 2011 — 23 Comments

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.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Hecate

    Makes me proud of my state. Maybe I should start adding "infidel of every denomination" on the letters I write to our current wingnut governor and AG. Although it's an odd word. "mid-15c. (adj., n.), from M.Fr. infidèle, from L. infidelis "unfaithful," later "unbelieving," from in- "not" + fidelis "faithful" (see fidelity). In 15c. "a non-Christian" (especially a Saracen); later "one who does not believe in religion" (1520s). Also used to translate Arabic kafir, from a root meaning "to disbelieve, to deny," strictly referring to all non-Muslims but virtually synonymous with "Christian;" hence, from a Muslim or Jewish point of view, "a Christian" (1530s)."

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    And yet some regulars on this board sound like they regard the freedom "to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion," as part of the problem in places like Haiti. I'm delighted the 225th anniversary is being observed, but I suspect I can't project this feeling generally onto the Pagan community.

    • Robin Artisson

      Why should they have those freedoms outside of American borders? I see no stipulation that says they maintain those American freedoms when in another country. I don't think they should do anything that Haiti itself doesn't allow, when in Haiti. Now, sadly, Haiti DOES allow missionaries to come in and "profess and maintain by argument" their tripe, but if the Haitian government would ever unpack its ass from the suitcase they have it in, and really examine the methods and motivations of these wicked people, and notice the true impact of their work on Haiti, they might do something to limit the crime of mission work.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        You raise two points here, Robin, one pedestrian and one profound. The quotidian thought is that if the Haitian government were functional the Christian missionaries would not be able to go beyong "profess[ing] … by argument." That's obvious.

        The profound one is the suggestion that this high prose of human rights only applies to us. What makes us so specially deserving, I wonder?

        • Norse Alchemist

          I could possibly answer the profound one. Why do we as Americans so specially deserving of human rights above others?

          Well, nominally, because we were the first to exercise those rights, put those rights into law, and then enforce the law of those rights upon our citizenship when said citizens would have gone with the old way of doing things under monotheism and smite heavily all who did not believe. No other nation has done as we have. Many have tried to put the rights into their laws, and failed. So, why did we succeed where so many others failed? What makes us so special?

          Because the founding fathers put pagan ideals into the very foundations of this nation, and the people who came here were of stern and sturdy stock, of all races, willingly or not. Because we put forth ideas of equality and made them into practice, and while they might not have happened instantly and it was a rough getting there not only did we do it, we're still trying to do it even to this day. Western Civilization is the first civilization in the world to declare that all men and women are equal and to free its slaves and make them equal citizens. No other civilization in the history of the world has done that.

          Why do we deserve these rights and protections? Because every day we push ourselves to guard and be worthy of those rights. We're not perfect, but we've done better than most. And the Gods help us if we ever make ourselves believe we are less and are not worthy of those rights, because the day we do, is the day we lose them, and so much more.

          • Robin Artisson

            A superb response. Let the others have their Buddha, their Confucius, their Jesus, and whomever else- we have Love of Liberty and the stones to declare it and defend it. And it offends so many that we do. To quote the incomparable Marcus Aurelius: "If it is right to say or do something, it is even better to be criticized for having said or done it."

          • Bookhousegal

            Of course, remember, too, that the Founders and that very agreement that's the basis of American law both include *all* people, not just Americans or citizens. As Americans we hold those things to be self-evident and unalienable. While, of course, not all other nations are based on similar agreements, that doesn't mean that we can sit here and say *their* people are inherently undeserving of rights.

            Being (debatably) first at it doesn't justify all so much exceptionalism. Particularly when we've fallen behind a lot of other nations in bringing that equality and freedom to full manifestation.

            Of course, that should probably also mean doing something about all those missionaries stirring up trouble and tyrannical divisions in other nations in the name of some theocracy and general inequality. They should at least not be able to use a tax exempt status *here* to go tell people to blame and fear Voudouisants in their own country.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Alchemist, you've made the case why we deserve these rights, but not why others don't. Your scope is all of Western civilization (with which I agree) which encompasses Haiti, the place about which Robin was skeptical of application of these rights.

    • Siegfried Goodfellow

      I think many of the Indian anti-conversion laws speak to this very nicely, treating missionary work essentially as a form of sales, and like all sales, restricted by law to utilizing coercion, fraud, or bribery in their tactics. Wonderfully, they include as a form of coercion threats of divine punishment, which effectively restricts Christian or Muslim threats of hell. This doesn't keep missionaries from "professing" their "opinions in matters of Religion", but does restrict them to maintaining it "by argument", rather than the usual lies, spiritual threats, and bribes (ie., trying to disguise conversion attempts under a banner of "charity" : ie., we'll feed you if you convert or agree to subjecting yourself to our high-pressure tactics). Since missionaries and Christians in general often tell blatant lies about other religions, provisions against fraud would make such a tactic illegal. I'd throw in there slander as well, under the heading of fraud. So, if you can convince another to convert to your religion, using entirely logical arguments, which themselves use nothing but the facts, engaging in no spiritual threats, no fraudulent information or slander, and no bribery, such freedom of speech and religion is entirely protected. But predatorial sales tactics can certainly be regulated under law. "Freedom of religion" under rule of law does not mean you get to do everything your religion commands ; in fact, it strictly prohibits coercive monopolization of others, for example, which many monotheist religions try to encourage.

  • CatDeville Llewellyn

    Jason, can you provide a reference for your claim that "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.'" or documentation of where Jefferson wrote this? It's not that I dispute your claim, it's that I'd like to be able to include it in my own articles concerning religious freedom, and specifically why the protection of religious freedom was never intended (by Jefferson, at least) to apply only to Christians, or even only to Deists or religionists, but I neither wish to plagiarize nor to state a fact which I can't document.

    Your follow-up is greatly appreciated.

  • Robin Artisson

    Praise the Divine Genius of Jefferson and the wise men like him who spoke for us, long before we were compelled to speak for ourselves. May their bold spirits remain to support us, and all in need of their wisdom. This thanks comes from the bottom of the black heart of this Infidel.

  • Apuleius

    Patrick Henry was on the other side. He and many other Virginians fought for a law that would have committed the government to subsidizing "teachers of the Christian religion." Somewhat ironically, Patrick Henry was one of those who raised the alarm the following year, in 1787, when the new Constitution was finalized without including an enumeration of rights of individual citizens.

    When it comes to great historical figures like Jefferson, Henry, and Madison (who strongly supported the Religious Freedom Act), we shouldn't overlook their faults, but nothing can take away from the great debt we owe to them. Most countries still do not have, even in writing, the kind of guarantees of freedom of expression and religious freedom that the US has. Of course, a lot of other countries do have written guarantees of women's equality, which we still do not. So we shouldn't get too cocky!

  • Norse Alchemist

    While it is true we don't have written guarentees of women's equality, I have always looked upon the original documents as having no need of them. Why do we need special clauses for gender, sex, etc…when the original words were:

    "All Men are Created Equal."

    If we go with the ancient usage and understanding of "Men" then it means all of mankind, (or at least all of Mankind that belongs to that nation). And thus, since the beginning it has always been "All Human beings are created equal."

    Don't get cocky? They put it in there long before people ever thought we'd need it. How freaking cool is that?

  • Bookhousegal

    Well, Apuleius, the quote does point out, not just that Jefferson and Madison meant to include all religions, we have it right from Jefferson's mouth that the Founders considered the 'Christian Nation' bit and a majority soundly rejected the proposal.

    Not that we're dealing with reasonable people, here, but that pretty much ought to settle the matter. :)

  • aediculaantinoi

    Something really important (which I just wrote about on my blog), which has not been mentioned in relation to Jefferson's statements on religious freedom, is the fact that he speaks directly about us in his statement, and it isn't his phrase "the infidel of every denomination." It is, in fact, the word "Gentiles." This does not just mean "non-Jews," or "non-Jewish Christians"; it is the explicit term in early Christianity used for pagans. The writings of the Christian Church Fathers in the early centuries of the current era were often entitled "Against the Gentiles" and similar titles, and they were apologetic statements trying to convert pagans by telling them how false their own religions were. This would not have been an unknown fact to Thomas Jefferson and the others writing during his time. The fact that he names Christianity after Gentiles suggests that he thought of them separately. So, Jefferson is not just including the possibility of paganism in his catch-all statement, he's named us explicitly and specifically–and we should never let that be forgotten or overlooked in these political discussions in the future!

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    I'm all for updating and clarifying language, since people can be selectively understanding of old language at their convenience, and then there's the whole subconscious aspect of linguistic relics (like using the words black and white to describe people).

    Though, at risk of going off-topic, I can't resist mentioning this cartoon where the use of "men" referring to humans is brilliant in my eyes, though unintentional: Peace on Earth, a 1939 cartoon in which a saccharine civilization of cute little forest animals replaces humanity. The grandfather squirrel tells the children about "men" and the death of the last men on earth. He describes men as creatures with shiny eyes and long snouts who did nothing but fight. Clearly, he'd only ever seen soldiers, who, of course, were men back then. Soldiers write the epitaph of "men" and men write the epitaph of humanity.

    However, I feel the cartoon severely lacks some sort of intentionally ironic twist.

    And now you all know I'm a cartoon nerd.

  • Hecate

    "Why do we need special clauses for gender, sex, etc…when the original words were:

    "All Men are Created Equal." "

    Irony rises from her couch, slits her slender wrists, and drinks a Draino cocktail, followed by a bleach chaser.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Alchemist, you may be right about what "men" meant in, say, 1950, but not 1776. The actions of the men (and I use that term literally) who wrote those words makes it clear they meant white males and only white males.

  • Crystal7431

    Bravo! I was thinking the same thing. I'm not an infidel, I'm a Gentile.

  • JDrury

    As usual, well-said.

  • Monica

    You may or may not be familiar with the following quotes (as I have seen them posted on THE WILD HUNT before, and refer to them now); but as I am a modern-day pagan, they speak volumes to me as to exactly what both of these founding fathers were thinking at that time and to the forethought that was placed into their selectively chosen words.

    “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
    — Thomas Jefferson, 1782

    …“…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” – Article 11, Treaty of Tripoli, 1796 (signed by President John Adams)