Americans celebrate National Religious Freedom Day on Saturday, as a day set aside each year to honor the right to freely exercise deeply held religious beliefs. The day is always held on Jan. 16, which is the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson's landmark Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom on the same day in 1786.
Jefferson's statute, proclaiming religious freedom is among the "natural rights of mankind," became the basis for the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. President Barack Obama issued a proclamation to mark this day, as previous U.S. presidents have since 1993. Last year, he declared: "From many faiths and diverse beliefs, Americans are united by the ideals we cherish. Our shared values define who we are as a people and what we stand for as a Nation. With abiding resolve, generations of patriots have fought -- through great conflict and fierce debate -- to secure and defend these freedoms, irrevocably weaving them deep into the fabric of our society."
"We must also continue our work to protect religious freedom around the globe. Throughout the world, millions of individuals are subjected to discrimination, abuse, and sanctioned violence simply for exercising their religion or choosing not to claim a faith. Communities are being driven from their ancient homelands because of who they are or how they pray, and in conflict zones, mass displacement has become all too common," the proclamation further stated.
A Religious Freedom Day Coalition is comprised of the following entities: Association of American Educators; The Beckett Fund; Council for America's First Freedom (Valentine); Gateways to Better Education; Institute on Religion & Democracy; and The Providence Forum.
In observance of this day, many U.S. schools incorporate the U.S. Department of Education's Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools or the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"We should care deeply about this (recent) surge in religious freedom abuses and other human rights violations for humanitarian reasons and because of the tremendous instability these abuses unleash," Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Thomas J. Reese, a commissioner, stated in an op-ed piece in Religion News Service on Friday.
America traditionally has respected the role of faith in public life. "We have respected the claims of conscientious objectors when laws put them at odds with their deepest convictions. We have worked with religious groups of all kinds that believe that taking care of the needy is part of their calling: from Jewish hospitals to Catholic soup kitchens. We have let spiritual leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., remind us that politics must aim at justice," said Jeb Bush, GOP presidential candidate.
People of faith are also being asked to compromise their beliefs on the issue of marriage, stated Bush in National Review. "While people of good will have different opinions on same-sex marriage, in a nation as large and diverse as ours, we ought to be able to find sensible compromises that accommodate bakers and florists and photographers who choose not to participate in weddings they find objectionable."