This past year was a year of tumult and a year of change.
As a nation we sought unity to protect human rights and freedom. We have taken steps forward to defend the vulnerable and speak up for the voiceless. We have tried to prevent any steps backward to a past era of intolerance and discrimination. We have joined hand in hand to celebrate, not silence, the differences that make our nation whole.
This Monday, schools and offices close to remember a man who hoped and who had a dream -- “A dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.” It was his dream that our nation might be healed from hatred and inequality. And his hope is what drives us forward.
Today Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for racial equality has been realized in many ways but there is still always more that we can do.
This Monday, we also remember the steps our nation has taken to achieve another important vision of King’s that is deeply rooted in the American Dream: religious liberty.
Every year on January 16, the anniversary of the 1786 passage of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the President officially proclaims Religious Freedom Day. It is a day to celebrate our first freedom: the right to live and worship according to one’s beliefs. It is also a day to encourage understanding and respect for our neighbor’s beliefs, which play a vital role in enriching our diverse society.
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was introduced during a time of extreme government dictatorship over the beliefs of its citizens. The colonies were rampant with waves of intolerance toward different opinions. Though there were many different faith groups seeking truth through the pursuit of religion, according to the government of each colony there was really only one right answer to the question of religion.
At the time, the Anglican Church was the only religion officially permitted in Virginia. In fact, most of the colonies had a state-approved church, and citizens were required to support it through taxation. Unpopular groups like Catholics and Quakers were ostracized, jailed, and even executed. Though many people fled to the colonies in search of religious freedom, true freedom was yet to take hold.
Thomas Jefferson sought to change that. He wanted to cut the binds between the government and religion because he believed that the state should never be able to dictate what a person believes about God or himself. So Jefferson drafted a measure for the Virginia General Assembly that would free the people from state-controlled religion and ensure true freedom of conscience.
The new law passed, forbidding the government from forcing any individual to worship in a specific way or support a particular house of worship. Now Virginians were now free to speak, act, and worship by whatever faith they chose. Virginia’s passage of Jefferson’s bill charted the course for what eventually became the First Amendment.
Centuries later, Martin Luther King, Jr. drew on Jefferson’s example in his letter from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. King explained that our country needs people to exercise their conscience in the face of injustice in order to pursue “those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.” By standing up for his beliefs, King honored Jefferson and the First Amendment ideal of religious liberty for all.
The First Amendment continues to enshrine the freedoms embodied in the American Dream, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream. No matter the color of our skin, the country our ancestors come from, or the religion that drives us toward God and truth – the First Amendment protects our basic human rights from government intrusion and discrimination.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established in 1983. Religious Freedom Day was established in 1993. For the past 24 years the President has recognized Religious Freedom Day with an annual proclamation to remind us that though we have taken strides in defending religious liberty and advancing equality, there is still always more that we can do.