Every January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, a day to celebrate one of our fundamental freedoms and recognize the anniversary of the signing of the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute. This statute may not be immediately familiar to most people, but its substance is acknowledged by nearly all Americans, as it served as the ideological basis for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The idea of religious freedom was conceived as a shield protecting against government overreach when it comes to religious matters. All Americans, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and so on, should have the freedom to practice their faith or worldview free from burdensome government regulation or required participation; faith and other individual thoughts are private waters that government shall not wade in except in extreme circumstances.
Jefferson's Virginia Statute communicates this perspective well, interestingly enough, emphasizing our freedom from government imposition of faith, an aspect of religious freedom too often overlooked today. The statute states (admittedly in outdated gendered terms) that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained,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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
Unfortunately, much has changed in the centuries since the Constitution was adopted. The shield of religious freedom has often been transformed into a sword by religious conservatives who seek to force their faith on others and use that faith as an excuse to discriminate against their fellow Americans free from legal repercussions.
Take for instance the passing of various state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which, unlike the federal version of this law, protects private citizens from civil penalties for discriminating against others because of religiously motivated views. While the religious freedom properly understood mandates government religious neutrality, recent statements by public officials seem to reject that at the expense of the nonreligious. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia went as far as to say religious neutrality just doesn't exist specifically asserting with his question "there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition...to be sure, you can't favor one denomination over another but can't you favor religion over nonreligion?"
This transformation of religious freedom, from a defensive barrier between people and the government, into a weapon used to promote special rights to discriminate, not only fans the flames of prejudice, but weakens the overall health of religious freedom in our country. When the majority religion receives government support and their beliefs are seen as a civic virtue, those identifying with minority faiths and philosophies are alienated and may fear government reprisal for how they think and believe. That's not religious freedom.
Mutating the concept of religious freedom in such a way also impacts other areas such as the justice system. As some people take advantage of special rights for the religious, use their religion as a way to discriminate, and exempt themselves from laws that the rest of us have to follow, the idea that all of the laws apply to all Americans equally is jeopardized, which in turn weakens the very rule of law.
The idea and character of religious freedom has changed over the years, and unfortunately the change has not always been for the better. But celebrations like Religious Freedom Day can remind us of the full nature of religious freedom. It's an opportunity to compare the intention of the concept with its current incarnation. And through this greater understanding we can work to restore our strong democratic tradition of a religious freedom in a way that can protect us all.