Before Thomas Jefferson died, he asked that three of his accomplishments be written on his Monticello tombstone. The first is easy to guess — author of the Declaration of Independence. Also well known is the third accomplishment listed — father of the University of Virginia.
Sitting in the middle of his epitaph? Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It may seem like a curious inclusion given Jefferson’s other successes — third president of the United States and the overseer of the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the U.S.), to name two.
However, the principles of that legislation, which was passed by the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 16, 1786, laid the groundwork for the guarantee of religious freedom found not only in the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights, but also in subsequent state and national constitutions around the world.
Jan. 16, 2013, marks 227 years since the passage of Jefferson’s bill. It also marks the 20th anniversary of National Religious Freedom Day. That observance was established by President George H.W. Bush and has been commemorated each year since then with a declaration by the current president.
The text, as well as a paraphrase of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, can be found in the Religious Freedom Day Guidebook available at religiousfreedomday.com. Also included in the guidebook is a list of seven religious liberties enjoyed by public school students:
- Students can pray, read the Bible or other religious books, and talk about their faith at school during school hours.
- Students can organize prayer groups and religious clubs and announce their meetings.
- Students can express their faith in their class work and homework.
- Teachers can organize prayer groups and Bible studies.
- Students may be able to go off campus to (receive religious instruction) during school hours.
- Students can express their faith at a school event.
- Students can express their faith at their graduation ceremony.
Among this year’s four honorees are Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Chinese Uyghur and defender of human rights for Chinese minorities, and Tad Stahnke, director of policy and programs at Human Rights First.
According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, three out of four people in the world live in a country where restrictions on religion are high or very high. In 2007, that figure was two out of three.
David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at [email protected].