American Religious Freedom Day – Its History and Significance

“NATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY” on January 16 is only obscurely observed although it officially commemorates the historic day in 1786 when the Virginia Religious Freedom Statute authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison separated Virginia and the Anglican Church mandating no one “…shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever”.

This landmark law became the basis for our US Constitution First Amendment in 1791 guaranteeing religious freedom for Americans (i.e. the individual right to our religious or non-religious beliefs free from government favor or disfavor – provided no harm occurs to others).

The First Amendment also provided genesis for the United Nations proclamation “…everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

Human beings, as children, believe in Santa Clause, flying reindeer, elves, Easter bunnies, Halloween witches, fairies, ghosts, angels, devils, gods, etc from family and community indoctrination although no evidence exists for them. Children want and need to enjoy these beliefs which are by-products of childhood gullibility, obedience and imitation.

Adults cease believing in most childhood myths but many continue to believe in angels, devils and gods because they want to believe and some need to believe in them. Religious faith freely flourishes. Religion prospers and profits by perpetuating this propensity. Other adults evolve to evidence based beliefs in humanity, morality, nature, science, etc.

World history confirms early civilizations created their gods which continued as cultural creeds. Naturalist religions deified humans, animals and elements. Egalitarian religions deified children, women and men. Matriarchal religions deified women and motherhood. Patriarchal religions deified only males. Humans created most gods in their own image.

Biblical scripture affirms “…each national group made its own gods…” (2 Kings 17:29). Renaissance Philosopher Montaigne advised “Man is certainly stark mad. He cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozens”.

The religions of the original discoverers and inhabitants of the Americas, our indigenous people or Native Americans, consisted of animistic nature beliefs with humans, animals, plants, elements and geographic features revered spiritual essences. The next discoverers and inhabitants, Vikings or Norsemen/women, practiced polytheistic paganism with numerous gods and goddesses.

The religious beliefs of the majority of later European immigrants were various forms of Christianity imported from the ancient tribal Middle East by way of Rome. History documents the majority of early American colonists fled Europe to escape religious persecution and oppression by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church. Over 80% of American colonists did not belong to religion establishments in 1776.

There are 10,000 distinct world religions recognized and 2,000 different American Christianities competing (World Christian Encyclopedia). Belief uniformity does not exist. Most religions claim exclusive truth rejecting others. Very few respect belief diversity. Murderous rejection is mandated in Deuteronomy 13:6-10. “Religion” is derived from the Latin “religare” meaning “to bind”.

“Man is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion – several of them.” (American Humorist Mark Twain).

World history documents the human harm caused when governments and religions combined. Keeping government and religion separate is a fundamental liberty of free people protecting freedom of belief. It was clearly our Founders’ intent as confirmed by their founding documents.

The Constitution (Article VI) provides “ …no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust…”  separating religion from government. Most state constitutions also separate religion from government. Jesus even separated government and religion (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17).

We became the first nation in history independently established without declaring dependency on superior authority (emperor, monarch, dictator, deity, religion, scripture, etc).

The US Constitution also provides and protects freedom of belief for our US Armed Forces. All military regulations respect belief diversity and require freedom of belief. Other examples include the US Department of Defense official list of 221 different faith or belief groups recognized for the military and the US Department of Veteran Affairs official list of 70 different faith or belief emblems approved for military graves. Military chapels are also available for those who want religious worship and military chaplains are available for those who want religious instruction.

Our military men and women desire and deserve the right to determine, practice and enjoy their own religious or non-religious beliefs like all Americans. They do not want the religious beliefs of those who do not respect their right, especially self-righteous superiors, imposed on them in the military work environment interfering with their military duties. Such disrespectful and disruptive distractions adversely affect military morale, efficiency and readiness. Proper prevention occurs when military leaders demonstrate intelligence, integrity and insistence on compliance with the US Constitution, sworn military service oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, and military regulations.

The Founders separated religion (church) and government (state) to guarantee freedom of belief without government involvement, interference or influence. There can be no freedom of belief without a government that is independent and free from religion. American individual belief freedom remains recognized, respected and resilient.

We Americans are very fortunate to have the constitutionally guaranteed right to determine, practice and enjoy our own religious or non-religious beliefs. It is our original American liberty.

“Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship…”  and “…the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction.”  – 1st President GEORGE WASHINGTON

 “We should begin by setting conscience free. When men of all religions…shall enjoy equal liberty…we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.” – 2nd President JOHN ADAMS

 “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others…we are bound…to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience.” – 3rd President THOMAS JEFFERSON

 “…religion and Govt. will exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together…” and “…a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence by the Government.” – 4th President JAMES MADISON


Brigadier General John Compere, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, US Army (Retired)
Former Chief Judge, US Army Court of Military Review & US Army Legal Services Agency
Disabled American Veteran (Vietnam Era)
Board Member, Military Religious Freedom Foundation (over 80% Christians)


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