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On Religious Freedom Day, glimmers of hope in sea of despair

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Charles C. Haynes
January 15, 2011

Each Jan. 16, Americans are supposed to celebrate Religious Freedom Day, our least known, most neglected national holiday—except, perhaps, for the even more obscure Bill of Rights Day widely ignored every Dec. 15.


If people did pay attention, they might not find much to celebrate. After all, religious freedom in the United States—though still a robust experiment in liberty of conscience—is increasingly threatened by growing Islamophobia, persistent anti-Semitism, weakening legal protection for free exercise of religion and tepid public support for preventing government entanglement with religion.


More depressing still, religious freedom around the globe is on life support or, in many countries, already dead. From Russia (where minority religions are increasingly suppressed by the state) to China (with ongoing government crackdowns on disfavored religious groups) to Iran (where leaders of the Baha’i faith languish in prison), persecution of believers of every persuasion is rising.


Just speaking up for religious freedom can get you killed in some places. On Jan. 4, Salman Taseer, governor of the Punjab in Pakistan, became the first high-profile religious-freedom martyr of the new year. Apparently, he was assassinated for condemning his nation’s blasphemy law and defending Asia Bibi, a woman facing the death penalty under that legislation.


Despite this bleak litany of challenges to religious freedom, there are glimmers of hope in this sea of despair.


Consider the extraordinary outpouring of support for the Coptic Christians of Egypt by Muslim citizens in the wake of the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21 worshippers.


On Jan. 6, the day Copts celebrated their Christmas Eve Mass, thousands of Muslims surrounded churches throughout Egypt, holding candlelight vigils and offering themselves as human shields to protect the threatened Coptic community.


Marching under the slogan “either we live together or we die together,” ordinary Egyptians joined movie stars, Muslim religious leaders, and the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak to stand with Coptic Christians against Islamic militants. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to an image of a cross within a crescent, symbolizing “Egypt for All.”


In the United States, consider the formation last September of the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques to assist Muslim communities around the country that face opposition to building mosques in their neighborhoods. Sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the coalition includes religious leaders from America’s Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim faiths.


In words that reflect the best of who we are, the coalition describes its mission this way: “We believe the best way to uphold America’s democratic values is to ensure that Muslims can exercise the same religious freedom enjoyed by everyone in America. They deserve nothing less than to have a place of worship like everyone else.”


The lesson of the coalition—and of the courageous action by so many Egyptians—is simple, but profound: Religious freedom is best protected when people of one faith take responsibility to guard the rights of others, including those with whom they deeply disagree.


Guaranteeing religious freedom as a universal right for all is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted into law by the Virginia Legislature on Jan. 16, 1786—a date designated as Religious Freedom Day by every president beginning in 1993.


For the first time in history, a legislature voted to disestablish religion by ending government support of religion and protecting the right of every citizen to choose in matters of faith without state coercion or political retribution.


Soon after the vote, Jefferson wrote to James Madison (who led the fight to pass the bill): “It is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”


If they were alive today, Madison and Jefferson would likely be appalled and disappointed by the current state of religious freedom. Nevertheless, they could still be proud that the passage of the Virginia statute on Jan. 16, 1786, was a defining moment for liberty of conscience in the United States.


And 225 years later, on Jan. 16, 2011, their victory in Virginia remains a beacon of hope for all who struggle for religious freedom in America and throughout the world.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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