President Bush has declared today, January 16, 2009 as Religious Freedom Day.  Other presidents have done the same. However, it is an ironic act on the part of a president who leaves office with a dismal record on protecting and strengthening religious freedom. Consider President Bush’s faith-based initiative, opposition to comprehensive hate crimes legislation and treatment of Muslims following the events of September 11.  Why, this president has been known for using religious language to advance political agendas, further blurring the line between religion and government. Having said all of that, though, make no mistake about it, religious freedom – our first freedom – is well worth celebrating.

The date January 16th was chosen in commemoration of the signing of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, an act that Jefferson considered the major accomplishment of his life. The enactment clause of this historic document states:

“That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened 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.”

This document popularized and gave substance the concept of “separation of church and state.”  

Unfortunately many members of the Religious Right continue attempts to hijack even an emphasis on religious freedom by distorting the promise of the constitution and suggesting that the meaning of religious freedom is freedom for our religion, not yours.  

Among those who have joined the so called “Religious Freedom Day Coalition” are the Becket Fund and the Institute on Religion and Democracy, two organizations that consistently have sought to erase institutional boundaries between religion and government in an effort to impose their beliefs on all Americans.

My guess is that, for most Americans, January 16th will pass without a thought given to religious freedom, and that is unfortunate. Religious freedom, our first freedom, is essential to the integrity of religion and the vitality of democracy.

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