Every year since 1992 our nation has set aside January 16 to honor the core American value of religious freedom. Religious Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which laid the groundwork for the First Amendment to the US Constitution. At a time when so many nations still had a state religion, Thomas Jefferson crafted the Virginia document and considered it to be among his most important achievements. Fellow Founder James Madison helped to shepherd the law through the legislature in 1786.
The statute stated, “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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Today, the definition of religious liberty is again under debate, and those sentiments approved in 18th century Virginia are as true as they ever were. Religious freedom is a fundamental value that allows each individual to believe or not according to their own conscience. True religious freedom also requires the separation of religion and state as an essential condition for each entity to function uncompromised. The Coalition for Liberty & Justice (CLJ)—a coalition that comprises over 60 faith-based, secular, civil rights, health- and reproductive rights-focused, LGBTQ rights and more organizations—understands these values and works to fight back against those who would misuse faith to run roughshod over the beliefs of others.
This year for Religious Freedom Day, members of the coalition engaged the public, media and policymakers through traditional and social media, hoping to reach more than last year’s half a million Twitter accounts and more than 6 million impressions. In addition, 27 CLJ members sent a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to reject false notions of religious liberty that use religion to discriminate or undermine equality. Outlining a few of the principles shared by the diverse organizations that make up the Coalition for Liberty & Justice, the letter underscores the importance of a strong commitment to religious freedom that supports the common good—and not just the interests of the powerful few. Finally, the letter asks Congress to support those principles in the coming months.
Coalition member Frederick Clarkson of Political Research Associates said, “Religious liberty is a central issue of our time.” And it will be for some time to come, because society will keep struggling to keep in check those seeking to redefine rights as we have known them for centuries. CLJ members stand ready to illustrate real religious freedom, and to protect these rights for all the wide and diverse constituencies we represent.
In the upcoming year, the media, political candidates, politicians, the courts and the public will all debate the future of religious freedom. In the Zubik v. Burwell SCOTUS (seven consolidated) cases, religiously-affiliated institutions claim that the very act of objecting to provide employee contraceptive coverage poses a substantial burden to the religious freedom of the institutions—a wrongheaded concept on its very face. And then there are individuals and organizations seeking the right to refuse to follow laws that protect others from discrimination. And don’t forget the plethora of state RFRA laws—some of which are so broad as to undermine key civil rights, reproductive health rights, worker rights, and LGBTQ rights for citizens in several states—likely to be introduced in more places this year. As these and other issues reach the highest court in our land, a fitting measure of the challenges we face may be found in Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent comments alluding to the lack of constitutional requirements for neutrality between religion and non-religion. When a Supreme Court justice rebuffs the absolute separation of church and state, we can be sure the religious liberty questions are far from settled in our modern debate.
January 16 is a small reminder to elevate real religious liberty in the public discourse. Religious Freedom Day is one opportunity for all of us who care about this critical issue to explain how policies that impose or privilege a single religious viewpoint diminish both religion and government. Members of the CLJ stand at the ready to help ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith. While the nation celebrates Religious Freedom Day 2016, the Coalition for Liberty & Justice will be working hard to make every day a celebration of the freedoms it articulates.