A year ago I was attending a luncheon at the Library of Virginia when one of the curators announced he had a treat for us. After leading us upstairs to a climate controlled room he said, “If you don’t feel a tingle before you leave, there’s something wrong with you.”
The curator put on white gloves and ever so carefully unwound a rolled up document written on what appeared to be lambskin (or the skin of some other animal).
We all got closer to read what it said.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, 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.”
Whoa! I was looking at Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom written by his own hand. This old, influential and controversial document was just inches from my face!
“I have a tingle,” I said as I raised my hand.
Once I got over the shock of what I was witnessing, what struck me most was the way it was positioned. The statute appears towards the middle of the long page after and before other bills that Jefferson had pending before Virginia’s House of Delegates that day. His famous statute was one of the many orders of business of the hour, but the impact it’s had on the nation and perhaps the world is immeasurable.
Of all his accomplishments and lasting influence on America, Jefferson wanted his authorship of the statute to be among the three acts listed on his gravestone.
Of course, 228 years after the House of Delegates passed the statute that would become the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution, it’s still controversial.
The president typically proclaims January 16 Religious Freedom Day and this year was no different. In President Obama’s proclamation he writes:
"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.”
The president goes on to write, “my administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe.”
I asked White House press secretar Jay Carney to give some examples of how the Obama administration is promoting religious freedom abroad and also if he can assure the American people that the president is doing everything he can to appeal for the Americans being held in Iran, persecuted for their Christian faith.
Here’s what he said.
President Obama’s full Religious Freedom Day Proclamation:
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY, 2014 ------- BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION
In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly affirmed an ideal that has long been central to the American journey. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson, declared religious liberty a natural right and any attempt to subvert it "a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either." The Statute inspired religious liberty protections in the First Amendment, which has stood for almost two and a quarter centuries.
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.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 16, 2014, as Religious Freedom Day. I call on all Americans to commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation's liberty, and show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.