Whether or not you knew it, today, Jan. 16, is “Religious Freedom Day,” an annual event that has been recognized by the past three U.S. presidents. The designation, which honors America as a country that allows for the free practice of any and all faiths, was officially commemorated today by President Barack Obama.
As Reason’s “Hit and Run” blog notes, “Religious Freedom Day” honors the Virginia General Assembly’s passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in Jan. 16, 1786. Over the past 17 years, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all issued presidential proclamations in remembrance of the day (read the past archived statements here).
ReligiousFreedomDay.com explains the initiative in detail, writing: “Each year, the President declares January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day, and calls upon Americans to ‘observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.'”
On Wednesday, the White House released Obama’s 2013 proclamation message. In it, he focused upon the “freedom to worship.” Here is a portion (the majority) of the president’s commentary:
Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose. Today, we celebrate one of our Nation’s first laws to protect that right — the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, the Statute affirmed that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and “all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion.” Years later, our Founders looked to the Statute as a model when they enshrined the principle of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights.
Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose. As a free country, our story has been shaped by every language and enriched by every culture. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, Sikhs and non-believers. Our patchwork heritage is a strength we owe to our religious freedom.
Americans of every faith have molded the character of our Nation. They were pilgrims who sought refuge from persecution; pioneers who pursued brighter horizons; protesters who fought for abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Each generation has seen people of different faiths join together to advance peace, justice, and dignity for all.
Today, we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace.
As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.
Following publication of the proclamation, The Catholic Association, a group that works to engage Catholic voters, lambasted the president’s remarks. Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for the organization claimed that Obama “reduced religious freedom to freedom of worship.” And Ashley McGuire, senior fellow for the organization, called Obama’s remarks “hypocritical in light of the 100+ plaintiffs who have been forced to sue to protect their religious liberty because of the HHS mandate.”
Despite oppositional opinions and contradictions allegedly held within the president’s own actions, Obama has continued to honor the day, following in the footsteps of both Clinton and Bush who did the same. Read the proclamation in its entirety, here.