Every January 16, we all quietly mark Religious Freedom Day with observance and respect for our differences. Even though it seems ironic that this basic freedom came about as a way to diminish the influence of an established religion, Thomas Jefferson saw a larger truth, and our country is better for his vision.
When Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777, his intention was to disestablish the Church of England in his home state. The statute became law by action of the Virginia Assembly in 1786 and six years later, served as the basis for our First Amendment to the Constitution.
As established by law, freedom of religion gives us the right to believe in a higher power or nothing at all. Jefferson’s take on the Bible was unorthodox, and not every congregation in today’s United States would welcome him. He would be pleased, however, to see how incredibly diverse our beliefs are.
Our federal government insists that we pay taxes and obey the laws of the land, but it doesn’t dictate our faith, and it doesn’t discriminate against those who have none. We recognize that our country is far from perfect as we argue over politics and social issues. However, we respect the right of every individual to worship as she sees fit.
Jefferson would probably be disappointed by the number of times religion has been taken to court. It has been argued that faith has no place in schools, and there has been litigation revolving around the allowance of prayer in any venue. This judicial sparring will probably never end, but neither will our freedom to believe as we like.
Our liberties as citizens of this country are not dependent on the nature of our religion, and that would probably be the case even without Jefferson’s work. Our nation was founded on the belief that every individual has unalienable rights, so it is logical to assume that we would have evolved into a country that allows religious freedom.
However, Jefferson’s wisdom more than 230 years ago established a foundation that holds this country strong today. When we observe Religious Freedom Day, we should say a small prayer of thanks for his vision.