Taking stock on National Religious Freedom Day

In colonial Virginia, colonists were required to pay taxes to the Church of England — even if they disagreed with or opposed the church’s teachings. Shortly after the Commonwealth of Virginia was established, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and nearly a decade later on January 16, 1786, James Madison engineered its passage in the state’s general assembly. Today, we celebrate National Religious Freedom Day to commemorate this historic and consequential act.

As the father of the Constitution, James Madison fought tirelessly to ensure each individual’s right to religious freedom. An early draft of the Virginia state constitution stated, “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Madison opposed this wording and fought successfully to replace “toleration in the exercise” with “free exercise.” While this difference in language may seem insignificant to most of us, Madison recognized the underlying implications. “Toleration” implied that the exercise of religion was a right granted by government, while “free exercise” recognized that such a right came from a higher power — and is therefore inalienable.

Our fourth president made sure to protect not only our freedom of religion, but also our freedom of conscience. Madison noted, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Furthermore, such “free exercise” meant more than expressing one’s beliefs in private — Madison fought for the right of everyone to have the “freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin.”

While we celebrate our nation’s great legacy, let’s take a score card of the past year. The same inalienable rights that were threatened in colonial Virginia are being trampled upon by our federal government today. Take, for instance, the HHS mandate. The mandate, which requires employers and institutions to pay for drugs and services in violation of their consciences, is nothing short of what Jefferson warned as “an infringement of natural right.” It is precisely what the statute we are commemorating today sought to protect us from more than two centuries ago.

President Obama issued a Religious Freedom Day proclamation this morning, but unfortunately it makes no mention of the HHS mandate. In the first paragraph of his proclamation, the president uses the phrase “freedom of worship,” which may explain the inconsistency between his words and policies — our inalienable right to religious freedom extends far beyond weekly worship services. No wonder there are currently dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of both for-profits and non-profits.