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Remembering our First Freedom By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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By Adèle Auxier Keim, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Today is Religious Freedom Day – observed each year on the anniversary of the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. After a misstep last year, this year President Obama issued a proclamation calling religious freedom a “critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty,” and quoting Thomas Jefferson, who “declared religious liberty a natural right and any attempt to subvert it ‘a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either.’”

Over at the blog for the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers and Eric Treene joined in, reminding everyone of the great gains made for religious freedom under RLUIPA, the federal law that protects “the ability of religious communities to build places of worship and other religious institutions, and the ability of prisoners and other persons confined to institutions to continue to practice their faiths.” They noted that RLUIPA was “passed by unanimous consent in 2000 with the support of a religiously and ideologically diverse coalition of groups” and that the law had a “dramatic impact in its first ten years on protecting the [freedom of religion] and preventing religious discrimination.” They could easily have said the same about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law that provides even broader protection for religious freedom at the federal level. RFRA passed the House unanimously, passed the Senate 97-3, and was signed into law by President Clinton. For over twenty years, RFRA has played a pivotal role in protecting religious freedom for Americans of all faiths.

Back to the day: President Obama was right to praise religious freedom as a “critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty”—and to urge “every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.” As U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair and vice chair Robert George and Katrina Lantos Swett wrote today, “Freedom of religion or belief is … intimately bound up with other freedoms, including expression, association and assembly” and is “associated with vibrant political democracy, rising economic and social well-being, and diminished tension and violence.” And as Justices Alito and Kagan wrote in 2012, “[R]eligious bodies have been the preeminent example of private associations that have ‘act[ed] as critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State,’” and “the autonomy of religious groups, both here in the United States and abroad, has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 132 S. Ct. 694, 712 (2012).

Cases like Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby where the government is seeking to compel religious business owners and nuns to pay for contraceptives and potentially life-terminating drugs and devices remind us that the work of defending religious freedom is never done. But as the bipartisan voices raised this Religious Freedom Day remind us, it is also a right that unites far more than it divides.