CRF Blog

Religious Freedom Day on January 16

by Damon Huss

Since 1993, the president has proclaimed January 16 to be National Religious Freedom Day. The date marks the anniversary of the adoption, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson wrote a draft of the bill and submitted it to a vote when he was a legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779. A majority of the House rejected it.

Over the next several years, Jefferson and his supporters lobbied for the law to be passed. James Madison, in particular, showed what Jefferson called “unwearied exertions” in passionate support for the bill. Finally, the House passed the bill on January 16, 1786, with only minor revisions to Jefferson’s original text. It stated:

We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact 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, or 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

The statute was a central inspiration for what would become the First Amendment’s religion clauses five years later. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Please see CRF’s lesson on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom from Bill of Rights in Action, with discussion questions and classroom activity.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have made official proclamations about Religious Freedom Day. Here is an excerpt of President Obama’s Proclamation in 2011:

The writ of the Founding Fathers has upheld the ability of Americans to worship and practice religion as they choose, including the right to believe in no religion at all. However, these liberties are not self-sustaining, and require a stalwart commitment by each generation to preserve and apply them….

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 to show us how we can protect it for future generations here and around the world.