Commemorating National Religious Freedom Day and the Pioneering 1786 Freedom of Worship Law

January 16 marks the 29th anniversary of National Religious Freedom Day, a testament to the fundamental human right of all human beings to freely practice the religion or belief of their choice.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial at Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, USA
 Thomas Jefferson Memorial at Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. (Photo by Rick Grainger,

The annual occasion was first observed in 1993 as a celebration of spiritual unity and peace among different faiths. The official proclamation was followed by President Bill Clinton’s 1998 signing of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), an overwhelmingly bipartisan initiative of the U.S. Congress to promote religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy and to advocate on behalf of individuals and religious groups persecuted abroad because of their religious beliefs or affiliations.

“Our Founders enshrined the principle of religious freedom in the First Amendment to our Constitution, establishing it as a cornerstone of who we are as a Nation,” President Joe Biden said in a January 14 news statement issued by the White House. “On Religious Freedom Day, we recommit ourselves to the protection and advancement of this vital aspect of our American character—and to protecting the freedom of people of all faiths and none, both across our Nation and around the world.”

“Everyone,” the statement added, “should feel safe when attending a religious service, school, a community center event, or while walking down the street wearing the symbols of their faith.”

Religious Freedom Day honors the anniversary of the day in 1786 that the state of Virginia passed a little-known statute that has become the standard for freedom of religion or belief. Instituted a decade after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, five years before the Bill of Rights, and a year before the 1787 creation of the U.S. Constitution, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was proposed by Thomas Jefferson.

It was the nation’s first law to establish freedom of conscience as well as the separation of church of state. The statute declared that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” and that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.”

For a decade before its passage, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists set the stage by petitioning vigorously for religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

People’s opinions and beliefs, the law proposed in its revolutionary language, “are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.” Therefore, “to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty … .”

In a world where the norm was that states determined the official religion of their citizens, where the King of England, with whom Virginia was still at war, was not only the supreme ruler of the country but the head of the church as well, this was a concept that broke with the standards of the day and laid the foundation for the very concept of religious freedom incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

May that right continue unhindered and extend to all peoples of the world.


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Thomas Jefferson National Religious Freedom Day International Religious Freedom Act IRFA President Biden Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom First Amenment