Today, President Obama issued his Religious Freedom Day proclamation. He's done better in previous years. While I appreciate that he upholds this twenty-year tradition of emphasizing the day, I am concerned that this year's proclamation lacks a clear understanding of America's religious freedom.
In his opening statement, he emphasizes the "freedom to worship as we choose." This is a narrower understanding of religious freedom. His next statement, reinforces this notion by editing Thomas Jefferson's words.
Since Religious Freedom Day is the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, written by Jefferson, it is appropriate to quote it. However, the President's proclamation edits the statement to read "all men shall be free to profess...their opinions in matters of religion." The full statement from Jefferson is this:
"Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man...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."
Jefferson's words go beyond merely having the freedom to go to hear sermons, sing songs, and pray in church. The Virginia Statute includes the freedom to maintain -- to act on -- one's religious convictions.
To put this in a modern context, the federal government is telling business owners like the Greens, who own Hobby Lobby and refuse to provide employee health care that runs counter to their religious convictions, "you are free to profess your opinion, but you are not free to maintain your opinion in the management of your business."
The President's 2011 proclamation was better. In it, he uses the full quote ("that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.")
In that proclamation he also reminds us that "these liberties are not self-sustaining, and require a stalwart commitment by each generation to preserve and apply them." He goes on to state "we vigorously protect the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs." But, doesn't this contradict what is currently happening with the health care mandate?
The President's 2012 proclamation was also better. In it he states that we "reaffirm that the American people will remain forever unshackled in matters of faith." Again, doesn't this contradict what is happening with the health care mandate? The federal government is asserting that people's religious faith IS shackled to the mandates of the government.
Hobby Lobby faces fines of $1.3 million per day if its owners do not make their faith subservient to the government's mandate. This, it would seem, is exactly counter to Jefferson's statement that no person should be "burthened" (meaning "burdened") "in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief."
This year's proclamation lacks the strength of previous proclamations. It begins with a diluted message about "worship" but, toward the end it does call on Americans to honor the day "by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution."
(See the President's proclamation below)
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.
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, 2013, 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 sixteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.