The gulf between promise and practice of the highest aspirations of American democracy often remains wide. And those who would concentrate power in the hands of the few grow increasingly well organized.
But it is up to us to carry forward the struggle for justice, informed by the best of our past, and mindful of the many paradoxes of injustice in a country that still seeks to rise above them.
On Jan. 16, designated by the U.S. Congress as Religious Freedom Day, we will commemorate the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.
The first legislation of its kind, the Virginia Statute opened an era of liberatory hope and possibility in the revolutionary era.
Thomas Jefferson first drafted the statute in 1777, which declares 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.”
James Madison shepherded it through the state legislature in 1786 and then carried these ideas with him to Philadelphia, where he would become the principal author of the Constitution and, later, the First Amendment.
This certainly gives considerable weight to the idea that the Virginia Statute has much to say about the meaning of religious freedom – often referred to as the “first freedom” of the First Amendment.
That is the backstory, but at its root the American notion of religious freedom is a revolutionary idea that remains as much a threat to tyrants today as it was in the 18th century, just as Jefferson hoped.
To state it plainly, the statute protected the freedom to believe as we choose – to talk about our faith and our views on religion itself – without fear of discrimination or exclusion from public life.
Critically, it places the locus of power within individuals, not institutions, in part because its author sought to reject the domineering, totalitarian Anglican Church of 18th century Virginia, which served as an arm of the British Empire.
Thus, the most important words in the Virginia Statute are about religious equality and essentially declares that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law.
The notion that people could think for themselves, without the undue influence of government or religious institutions, was a powerful and dangerous one.
This idea threatened the very structure of American society, introducing notions of dignity and justice that Jefferson and his contemporaries, in their time, only partly embraced.
But in the years that followed activists and agitators, voters and decision-makers, have come ever closer to delivering on the abiding promise of religious freedom for those of all faiths and of none.
But our founders also anticipated that powerful theocratic interests would someday try to undo their visionary ideals. And they were not wrong.
In recent decades, the Christian Right has sought to undermine the basic freedom to believe as we choose, increasingly concentrating power in the hands of those who believe and live as they do.
By seeking – and under the Trump administration securing – sweeping exemptions from civil rights, employment, child welfare and other laws, these groups champion religious institutions and individuals that would impose their beliefs on others at the expense of the personal freedoms Jefferson and the revolutionaries of the founding generation sought to protect.
The Supreme Court, for instance, recently heard oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia in which a publicly funded foster and adoption agency is seeking a special license to violate local nondiscrimination laws.
The agency argues that, as a religiously affiliated organization, it must have access to taxpayer dollars to discriminate against those very same taxpayers – anything less would violate their religious freedom, regardless of the harm they may cause to the children and families of their city.
A decision for the agencies could cement the autonomy of organizations, based on their religious status, to violate the religious freedom and other rights of individuals. This notion turns the promise of the Virginia Statute on its head, even as its proponents distort the very term “religious freedom” in service of their cause.
This is just one example.
In response to the regressive laws and regulations regarding the recent outsized role of religious institutions in public life, we often hear people say that these things are not religious freedom. And we agree.
That’s why we think it is so important that, even as the chasm widens between the promise of our first freedom and our lived experiences, we reach into history to reconnect with our deeply held values about freedom of conscience.
Jefferson’s vision of true religious freedom – the right to believe as we choose, without fear – can and should guide us in this particularly painful moment to build a more perfect union.
We are at the beginning of what may be a long journey to regain much of what has been lost in a relatively short period of time. But we are so fortunate to be so profoundly informed by the work of revolutionaries who made religious freedom possible, and the bright light of history to guide us.
This Religious Freedom Day, we reclaim – and we look forward, together.
Joseph is Director of Policy & Advocacy at Interfaith Alliance, a national organization that champions true religious freedom and combats the misuse of religion to discriminate. She lives in Washington, DC.