Written by Don Byrd

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which marks the anniversary of the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. The Virginia Statute promised religious liberty for people of all faiths, and was a model for our religious liberty guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Every year, we celebrate this anniversary, and the enormous step forward it represents, with presidential proclamations and other recognitions. This year, I encourage everyone to try something specific: read it! It’s not too long, and you can work through the 18th Century vernacular. But it is a powerful statement of what true religious freedom means.

Here are a couple of excerpts that especially speak to me:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness…

that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry, that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right, that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it; 

A common objection to those of us who advocate for a robust separation of church and state is that our Founders would not have insisted on a strict delineation. But the Virginia Statute, authored by Thomas Jefferson, shows a keen and passionate understanding that the separation of church and state is good for both. Read the whole thing.

And on Tuesday, January 16, watch a panel discussion hosted by the Newseum entitled National Religious Freedom Day: Faith and Freedom in a Fractured America, moderated by the Baptist Joint Committee’s own Jennifer Hawks. You can watch it streaming live at 3:30 Eastern time.