“...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...”
Thomas Jefferson wrote these words as part of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Virginia's lawmakers adopted the statute on this day in 1786.
Today is the anniversary of that landmark legislation, and so today is celebrated as Religious Freedom Day.
A law is termed “landmark legislation” if it is a new idea that is often copied, a turning point of sorts for people and governments. Since 1786, the U.S. adopted the famous First Amendment to the constitution, stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; the legislatures of many other nations have since passed similar bills.
Remember, that means that there is no state religion in the United States (as there is in England, for example). It means that one religion cannot be favored over another by the government or its organizations (such as public schools). And it means that nobody can be legally punished for their religious viewpoints or membership, nor for having no religious beliefs.
Although religious freedom is hugely important to most Americans, Jefferson's great idea leads to a certain amount of controversy, too. For example, some people are upset that kids can't pray in public schools. But that's just not true. Kids can silently pray anytime they want to in public school—who would even know? Similarly, kids can pray aloud or in small groups in some settings and at some times in public school. But school teachers and administrators cannot lead classes or the entire school in prayer. Anyone who thinks that the principal should be able to lead everyone in prayer should imagine that principal doing so from the vantage point of another religion. For example, a Christian student who wishes there could be a public prayer at graduation should imagine someone leading all the participants to pray to Allah. Mmm, maybe not such a good idea, after all, is it? A Jewish or Muslim student would feel left out if the principal invoked the name of Jesus in a prayer, and a Buddhist or atheist student would probably feel left out by a prayer to a supposedly non-denominational God.
Here is a news item about freedom of religion, from just a couple of days ago. Note that you can view the results of the online poll, which seems to show that most Americans do understand the value of the separation of church and state. (Hooray!)
Also on this date: