Today is Religious Freedom Day and President Obama issued a Proclamation to honor the day. The text included atheists as part of the religious diversity and cultural fabric of the United States. He also mentioned the important thing isn’t someone’s faith but that we all should support freedom, equality, justice, and separation of church and state.
Religious Freedom Day marks the day in 1786 when the first religious freedom law – Statute for Religious Freedom – was passed in Virginia.
Jefferson penned the bill during a time when true religious liberty was a rarity in America. Many states had established religions. In some parts of the country, you had to pay taxes to support the official church, even if you didn’t belong to it. “Dissenting” clergy – that is, any member of the ministry from another church – were often forbidden from preaching in public.
Patrick Henry proposed a bill that would tax everyone to pay “for the support of the Christian religion, or of some Christian church, denomination or communion of Christians, or for some form of Christian worship.”
James Madison, a close ally of Jefferson’s, was alarmed. Madison, who was serving in the Virginia legislature at the time, had previously expressed his dismay at seeing Baptist ministers in jail in Virginia because they had run afoul of the Anglican establishment. There was no way he was going to let Henry get away with this.
Opposition to Henry’s measure grew, and it was defeated. Madison decided the time was right to push forward; he re-introduced Jefferson’s religious freedom bill. The measure passed by a vote of 60-27 on Jan. 16, 1786.
[N]o 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.
Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)
So of course nontheists should be covered by the statute and the 1st amendment of the US Constitution. President Obama said as much in the text of his proclamation signed on Wednesday:
Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.
America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.
As we observe this day, let us celebrate America’s legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.
Although we are celebrating Religious Freedom Day, we know there are strong forces working to tear down the wall of separation of church and state. We need to be vigilant and fight ANY violation or attempts to violate the wall between church and state.