Celebrate Religious Freedom Day
Most everyone knows that Monday is a day celebrating the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr., but did you also know that Monday is Religious Freedom Day? Religious Freedom Day celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and serves as a reminder of the historic words of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, efforts are in motion to undermine these watchwords written by our Founders, who experienced firsthand the detrimental effects an established Church and prohibitions on the free exercise of religion can have on a society.
As previously mentioned on RACBlog, it has been a particularly rocky year in Florida for religious freedom. Both houses of the Florida legislature passed House Joint Resolution 1471, which seeks to amend the state constitution with the “Religious Freedom Amendment.” This proposed amendment would allow religious institutions to receive state funds on an equal basis as non-religious institutions. It was challenged by the Florida Education Association, members of the clergy and school board officials, and a Florida trial judge agreed with their argument that the summary language that would appear on the ballot was misleading. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was given 10 days to rewrite the ballot initiative, and the new summary language was approved by the trial judge. Given that there was no challenge from the plaintiffs, the amendment will now appear on the ballot.
Not only is Florida attempting to blatantly funnel state funds to religious institutions, but the state Senate Judiciary Committee also approved Senate Bill 98, which aims to allow prayer in public schools. Not non-denominational prayer, not a moment of silence, not a reaffirmation of a student’s constitutional right to engage in individual private prayer; no, this bill would allow school districts to ignore the objections of religious minorities and give students the power to vote on the type of prayers a school will conduct.
Florida is only one example of state and local governments intruding on the private practice of religion, a practice which is protected from government interference by the First Amendment. Legislators in New Hampshire and Indiana want to teach ‘creation science’ in public schools. In Virginia last year, the Giles County School Board unanimously decided to allow schools to redisplay the Ten Commandments after hundreds of parents complained about their removal. And in South Carolina, students at New Heights Middle School were required to attend an assembly featuring a sermon delivered by a Christian minister and rapper; during the assembly, students were encouraged to sign a pledge dedicating themselves to Jesus.
The Reform Movement has long stood as an advocate for religious freedom. What better moment than Religious Freedom Day to once again commit ourselves to ending these infringements on the First Amendment. On Monday, we must remember the work of Thomas Jefferson, the role he played in granting Americans the precious gift of religious freedom and the responsibility we have to protect that right.