Utah House Democrats and local religious leaders held a press conference Friday afternoon to announce legislation designating January 16th in Utah as Religious Freedom Day, honoring the first religious freedom law in the country.
In 1786, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed into law the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom Law. It was written by Thomas Jefferson a year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was ushered into law by James Madison a year before he became one of the principle authors of the U.S. Constitution.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is widely regarded as the taproot of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written—during a time when the framers were fighting to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies which were still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire and contending with a growing and religiously diverse population.
The law disestablished the Anglican Church as the official church of Virginia, and provided that individuals are free to believe or not believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words, what you believe or don’t believe cannot be used as a litmus test by government or government’s agents to deny you civil services.
House Minority Leader Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City), who is authoring the legislation honoring the 229 year old law, along with Reverend Patty Willis of South Valley Unitarian, Pastor Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church, and Sheryl Ginsburg of the Jewish Congregation of Kol Ami, say it is important to remember that original meaning of religious freedom, because the rights the law proscribes are now being threatened.
“Religious Freedom means the right of individuals to believe or not believe whatever they choose, without the fear of powerful institutions dictating what they must think,” said King.
January 16th has already been set aside on the national level by Congress, who designated the day as Religious Freedom Day in 1992. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, and has been renewed by presidential proclamation by Presidents Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama each year since.
“Religious Freedom was designed as a shield to protect the rights of individuals over the rights of powerful institutions like the government or religions. What we are seeing now is a coordinated effort to strip individuals of their freedom, and tell them that government and governments’ agents can mandate what they need to believe in order to access civic services,” says King, alluding to recent attempts in various states to pass religious freedom laws that don’t necessarily align with the definition of religious freedom espoused by Jefferson and Madison.
HB 66 – Marriage Modifications, being proposed by Representative Jacob Anderegg (Republican – Lehi), was mentioned by King as an example of a bill opposed to the original definition of religious freedom. The bill is in response to the recent court cases which have allowed same-sex marriages in Utah. If successful, the legislation would allow any government agent empowered to perform civil marriages to refuse to perform a civil ceremony on the basis of faith (either the agent’s or the the couple’s). Under current Utah law, religious leaders are already exempt, and cannot be forced to perform religious ceremonies under any circumstances, but Anderegg’s bill would go a step further and exempt government officials as well. King, who is LDS himself, strongly disagrees and says there should be a bright line between religious leaders acting in their religious capacities, and government agents acting on official business.
“The right of individual conscience must be held paramount,” says King. “No citizen of Utah should ever be denied a governmental service because of their beliefs or non-beliefs, or because of the beliefs or non-beliefs of any governmental employee. No one who is Catholic should ever be denied service because a government agent is Baptist, no LDS person can be denied services because a government agent is Protestant. No Athiest can be denied service because a government agent is Evangelical. No person of Jewish faith can be denied services because a government agent is Catholic. We are a country founded on religious pluralism, where every individual has the right to choose what to believe and what to not believe.”
Copy of Representative King’s proposed legislation, which has not been submitted yet so does not have a bill file number:
Eric Ethington is a freelance journalist and co-founder of Utah Political Capitol. His work has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Public Eye magazine. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington