Today Is Religious Freedom Day—and That Freedom Is Still Under Attack

By presidential proclamation, today—Jan. 16, 2020—is Religious Freedom Day.

Celebrated annually since 1993, the day commemorates the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson. The statute—a precursor to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—reads in part 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.”

In President Donald Trump’s proclamation, he said: “From its opening pages, the story of America has been rooted in the truth that all men and women are endowed with the right to follow their conscience, worship freely, and live in accordance with their convictions. On Religious Freedom Day, we honor the foundational link between freedom and faith in our country and reaffirm our commitment to safeguarding the religious liberty of all Americans.”

The president pointed out his administration’s commitment to religious liberty both at home and abroad. In 2017, he signed an executive order to advance religious freedom for individuals and institutions. Part of that order stipulates that the Department of the Treasury will not enforce the Johnson Amendment, which threatens the tax-exempt status of nonprofit organizations that speak out about political candidates. In addition, Trump said, the Justice Department has obtained 14 convictions in cases involving attacks or threats against places of worship, and he signed an executive order to combat anti-Semitism.

“I have also made clear that my Administration will not tolerate the violation of any American’s ability to worship freely and openly and to live as his or her faith commands,” Trump said in the proclamation.

Responding to the proclamation on Facebook, Franklin Graham wrote: “I am so grateful to President Donald J. Trump for his administration’s stand for religious freedom. He has done more for religious liberty than any president in my lifetime.” Franklin also noted the president would be working to “empower and protect the right to student-led prayer in schools.”

Ironically, on a day that hearkens back to a statute enacted in the state of Virginia, today the Health, Welfare and Institutions Subcommittee of that state’s House of Delegates is scheduled to consider a bill, HB 1051, that would directly violate the religious liberty of faith-based child placement agencies.

Specifically, the bill would repeal a 2012 state law that stipulated: “No private child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

In addition to repealing those protections, HB 1051 says that the state “shall not contract with or provide funds, directly or indirectly, to any child-placing agency that, in making decisions regarding the placement of a child, discriminates against the child or otherwise eligible prospective foster or adoptive parents on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or status as a veteran.”

Virginia Cobb, president of the Virginia-based Family Foundation, warned: “If this bill passes, organizations with deeply held religious convictions will inevitably be excluded from Virginia’s foster care system. … This bill would force faith-based child placement agencies to either comply with state licensing requirements and violate their core values, or close their doors to thousands of children in need of a loving home.”

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