President Obama proclaimed Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day in the United States in commemoration of a statute passed by America's forefathers that declared freedom of religion as a natural right of all humanity.
"Long before our Nation's independence, weary settlers sought refuge on our shores to escape religious persecution on other continents," Obama said on Friday in a statement. "Recognizing their strife and toil, it was the genius of America's forefathers to protect our freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice none at all."
In honor of Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom, the precursor to the First Amendment, the United States each year recognizes Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day. The statute, penned by Thomas Jefferson and supported in the Virginia legislature by James Madison, declared that freedom of religion is a right and not a privilege that any government can give or take away. The Virginia Statute also banned the government from supporting any particular church and ensured Americans the freedom to profess their faith openly, without persecution.
Today, people of many faiths are able to worship freely in the United States because of "a rich tradition of religious tolerance," the president said.
Obama also said the United States' commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond the nation's borders as the government advocates for all those persecuted for their faiths.
"My Administration will continue to oppose growing trends in many parts of the world to restrict religious expression," the U.S. leader vowed.
The president's pledge to protect the freedom of religion of oppressed people around the world comes a month after the Pew Research Center released the first-ever in-depth, quantitative study on restrictions on religious beliefs and practices around the world.
According to the study, two out of three people in the world live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion. That translates to nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people living in countries with high restrictions on religion, which mostly affect religious minorities, Pew reported.
Among all regions, the Middle East-North Africa region has the highest government and social restrictions on religion, while the Americas are the least restrictive regions on both measures.
Looking just at the 25 most populous countries, the most restrictive on both measures are Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India. The least restrictive are Brazil, Japan, the United States, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
In October, the United States took a clear stance against what it considered a violation of religious freedom and free speech over proposed U.N. resolutions on "defamation of religions."
The Defamation of Religions Resolution, backed by the 57 Muslim-majority countries that make up the Organization of Islamic Conference, seeks to criminalize words or actions that are deemed defamatory towards a particular religion.
Rights groups, however, warn the resolution could be used to legitimize anti-blasphemy laws and intimidate human rights activists and religious dissenters. Critics say instead of protecting adherents of religions, including religious minorities, the resolution protects religions themselves.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out against the proposed U.N. resolutions in October, saying such policies would restrict free speech.
Clinton said that while some claim so-called defamation of religions policies would help protect freedom of religion, she "strongly disagree[s]."
"The United States will always seek to counter negative stereotypes of individuals based on their religion and will stand against discrimination and persecution," Clinton stated. "But an individual's ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others' freedom of speech."
The protection of speech about religion and religious discourse is important in a world with many different faith beliefs, asserted the high-ranking U.S. diplomat.
Similarly, Obama in his statement for Religious Freedom Day asserted that people's freedom to practice their faith and follow their conscience "is central to our ability to live in harmony."
"On Religious Freedom Day, let us pledge our constant support to all who struggle against religious oppression and rededicate ourselves to fostering peace with those whose beliefs differ from our own," Obama urged.