What Does Religious Freedom Day Really Mean?

image of the logo for Religious Freedom Day

January 16th is National Religious Freedom Day. The day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. The Virginia Statute was the basis of the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution and also can be used to support Jefferson’s idea of the separation of church and state. The Religious Right have of course co-opted the day by mass marketing misleading information about what real religious freedom means in this country. Luckily, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has some help available to tell the truth.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed at a time when state support and protection of churches was the norm in what would become the United States. Thomas Jefferson offered the statute as a way to protect the church and the state. It is obvious from reading the text that separating church and state was the goal.

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

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, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;

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;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

From the text of Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom January 16, 1786

Even though it is obvious that Religious Freedom Day is about celebrating our natural right to worship (or not) how we want without interference of the state, the religious right have of course attempted to co-opt it and change the meaning like they did using the National Day of Prayer to cover up International Workers’ Day. Who can forget the biggest religious co-opt when Christians moved Jesus’ birthday to December 25th in opposition to pagan solstice celebrations.

Rob Boston writes:

Gateways and the ADF are experts at taking a reasonable piece of information and using it to make a wild leap. The website contains a short video claiming that students can include their faith in homework assignments, witness to fellow students and share their faith in the classroom.

Are these things really legal? Maybe and maybe not. It all depends on the circumstances. Interjecting your faith into homework might not be a good idea if it’s completely irrelevant to the assignment. And “sharing your faith” with a fellow classmate can rise to the level of harassment if it’s done repeatedly. If Emma tells Brad 25 times that she doesn’t want to go to church with him, school officials have the right to tell Brad to stop asking.

Can a student get up and give a sermon during graduation or another school event? Not according to several federal courts.

Gateways and the ADF make a big deal out of the fact that they are relying on guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education. That’s true, but in my view they are guilty of distorting those guidelines. They are pulling selective quotes from the document and failing to give their proper context.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Gateways, after all, is the group that a few years ago issued a pamphlet featuring a talking Easter Bunny encouraging teachers to discuss the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in public schools.

Save The Day: Religious Right Hijacks Religious Freedom Celebration

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is also promoting a new book that gives the facts about what is and what is not allowed in public schools concerning religion. Good news is that the book is available in PDF format for free. The title is Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights.

Here is the blurb:

“This handy 129-page book, written by Associate Professor of Law Anne Marie Lofaso of West Virginia University, examines what the courts have said about many religion-in-school controversies and provides clear, concise answers to common questions. Fully referenced and footnoted, Religion in the Public Schools is the perfect guide for anyone seeking to better navigate the intersection between religion and public education.”

Here is an excerpt from “Chapter Four: Curriculum Issues”:

6. Nor May Public School Teachers Claim an “Academic Freedom” Right to Teach about “Intelligent Design”

It is well settled that public schools may restrict a public school teacher’s ability to talk with students about religion during the school day. In that context, courts have uniformly acknowledged the school’s compelling interest in avoiding an Establishment Clause violation as justifying abridging the teacher’s free speech. Accordingly, public school teachers may not claim an academic freedom right to teach their own personal religious beliefs, including a belief in creationism or intelligent design, in the classroom. For example, in Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, the court concluded that a public high school biology teacher did not have a free speech right or academic freedom right to deny the theory of evolution or to discuss his personal religious views in science class The court based its conclusion on the fact that a school teacher is not an “ordinary citizen” while in contact with students.

Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights

All the examples are fully footnoted to the particular court case that supports what the text is saying.

The religious right has the money and means to broadcast their warped version of Religious Freedom Day but Americans United provides some help if you need to educate school personnel about what is really allowed or not allowed in public schools.


This blog transitioned to a podcast in April 2020.

Even after the transition there maybe an occassional blog post that isn’t a podcast like this post.

Listen to our podcast for free HERE or on your favorite podcast app.

Secular Left Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts,

Doug Written by:

Founder, editor and host of Secular Left - please be gentle For media inquiries see our "About" page.

One Comment

  1. […] personnel about what is really allowed or not allowed in public schools. Originally published on the Secular Left blog. Used with permission No related posts. This entry was posted in Essays, Issues and tagged 1st […]

Comments are closed.