For nearly three decades, the United States has observed January 16 as Religious Freedom Day. America’s “First Freedom” has historically enjoyed near-universal and bipartisan support. Nevertheless, contemporary challenges to religious freedom do exist.
Religious Freedom Day was adopted in honor of the country’s first religious freedom law, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the statute formally disestablished the state church and allowed Virginians to worship freely. It was a precursor to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
When Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, his proposal was radical. In an era when the government regulated and monitored the church’s liturgy and doctrine, it was bold to assert that religion was inherently a matter between an individual and God. But Jefferson’s bold assertion was the correct one, and for over 230 years, Americans have enjoyed the blessings of living in a country where the state recognizes it has no business interfering with man’s quest for religious truth and that God, not the government, is Lord of the conscience.
However, this past year, religious freedom has experienced an unprecedented challenge in the form of government mandates and restrictions placed on houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The types of restrictions ranged widely, from the reasonable to the unconstitutional. Examples of the latter included New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio threatening to “permanently” shut down churches and synagogues that did not comply with the city’s restrictions and Nevada prohibiting churches from admitting more than 50 worshippers —despite casinos being allowed to admit 50 percent of their maximum occupancy. A few restrictions have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order barring churches from holding indoors services (struck down in December) and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s prohibition of church gatherings exceeding 10 or 25 people (struck down in November).
It is important to recognize that most local and state officials were doing their best to protect their citizens’ health and safety. This same protective impulse led most churches to voluntarily cease in-person worship services in the spring, during the initial wave of the pandemic. By the end of March, 99 percent of churches were not meeting. Instead of flouting the government’s orders and continuing to meet in large groups, churches adapted to serve their communities and congregations in creative ways.
However, when businesses, casinos, tattoo parlors, and even abortion clinics began re-opening in the summer, many houses of worship — especially those in Democrat-controlled cities and states — were not allowed to re-open or to re-open at the same capacity as non-religious businesses, even if they abided by CDC guidelines. In many localities, these strict re-opening policies seemed to single out churches for unfair treatment. As a result, many churches sued over what they believed were unconstitutional and overreaching mandates from the authorities.
The events of 2020 posed challenges to nearly every sphere of life; however, the challenges to religious liberty were unique. At no other time in American history have churches throughout the country been told to shut down for nearly a year. Moreover, churches were clearly held to a more restrictive standard. What accounts for this unfair treatment? Why were churches subject to so much scrutiny and treated with suspicion throughout the pandemic?
The erosion of our culture’s high view of religious freedom is a major contributing factor. Only a generation ago, religious freedom enjoyed nearly unanimous, bipartisan support. Today, religious freedom is increasingly seen as a political issue. Many Americans no longer respect or understand the importance of religious freedom and are therefore more willing to restrict religious expression.
A second contributing factor is religion’s fading influence on personal and public life. The percentage of Americans holding to the tenets of the Christian faith has shrunk, while the percentage of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans has grown. Thus, it is easier to dismiss services and other forms of worship as nonessential.
It is important to remind our fellow Americans that religious freedom is a fundamental value that undergirds the other freedoms we enjoy. Contrary to a popular misconception, it is not a license to do whatever we want or to arbitrarily discriminate. Instead, religious freedom says people have the right to believe what they want in terms of theology and doctrine and can order their lives in a way that brings their life into conformity with these beliefs.
In 2020, President Trump marked Religious Freedom Day by noting, “Our Founders entrusted the American people with a responsibility to protect religious liberty so that our Nation may stand as a bright beacon for the rest of the world.”
Unfortunately, too many elected officials failed to honor and protect religious freedom in 2020. It is imperative that America recommits to upholding our “First Freedom” and ensures that all Americans — religious and nonreligious — are free to order their lives according to their deepest convictions.
David Closson is the Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.