Religious Freedom Day comes in a year when this vital freedom is threatened

Tuesday marks National Religious Freedom Day – a day many Americans may have never heard of, but one that honors what is perhaps our most important and fundamental freedom.

On Jan. 16, 1786, Virginia’s General Assembly adopted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson, this statute foreshadowed the freedom of religion guaranteed to all Americans through the First Amendment to the Constitution.

This is an especially appropriate year to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day because it is increasingly clear that the next 12 months could be a turning point for religious liberty in the United States.

Pending litigation will determine whether the First Amendment will continue its sweeping protection of the religious liberty that millions of Americans deeply cherish – or whether we will see that vital freedom severely limited.

Some Americans seem to view prayer and religious expression as a plague – a hazard from which the public must be protected. We have houses of worship where people can gather in private with like-minded individuals to worship as they please, but anti-religious zealots see these places as quarantines. Any trace of religion must be kept out of schools, government buildings, workplaces and any other public settings lest the plague spread.

In 2017, judges upheld the action of school officials in Washington state in firing high school football coach Joe Kennedy for taking a knee on the field after games in a 15-second silent prayer.

Across the country, a court approved action by the powerful Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) banning two Christian schools from using a stadium speaker system to pray before a championship game.

Both of these cases will be decided this year in federal appellate courts. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will determine Coach Kennedy’s fate. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will consider whether religious schools like those in Florida will be forced, as one commentator suggested, to form their own league – supposedly separate but equal from the FHSAA.

Meanwhile, legislative invocations may be facing a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court for the third time. In 2017 two county commissions met with conflicting results as two federal courts of appeal considered whether the Constitution permits prayers offered by elected officials prior to public meetings.

This year thousands of school board members, county commissioners, and city council members will be watching the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers whether the longstanding American tradition of opening public meetings with prayer will continue.

Within the military, this year will also test whether religious freedom can be restored for our service members.

Will the United State Air Force continue to stand behind those who physically assaulted and removed 33-year Air Force veteran Oscar Rodriguez from a private retirement ceremony on a military base – simply because he planned to say the word “God” in his speech?

Will the U.S. Supreme Court have an opportunity to consider whether the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial in Maryland will see its 100th year marking the sacrifice of those who fell in the Great War? Or will the court agree with those suggesting the memorial be defaced and transform its cross-shape into an obelisk?  

And, of course, this year will continue to answer one of the key questions considered in 2017: whether the owners of family-run businesses must abandon their religious convictions or risk losing everything.

While the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop were treated fairly, Aaron and Melissa Klein wonder what their future holds. Not only has an Oregon bureaucrat penalized their small, family-owned bakery $135,000 for politely declining – on religious grounds – to create a custom cake that celebrated a same-sex marriage. The government forced the closure of their bakery.

Since Oregon pronounced the Kleins pariahs, the community followed suit with streams of hate mail, online harassment laced with obscene epithets, and threats to their physical safety.

This year will be a critical one for the Kleins. Until now, the First Amendment has required neighbors to peacefully tolerate religious beliefs with which they disagree. But now Americans stand on the precipice of losing this critical civil liberty that protects our diversity, while rewarding those who mock, curse and threaten. May it not be so this year.

Religious liberty has been a bedrock principle since America’s inception. The Founding Fathers and many other founding patriots understood that religious liberty was a necessary element in the establishment of our republic – so much that they enshrined it in the Constitution.

Many of our nation’s earliest patriots paid a heavy price to ensure that religious freedom would be a fundamental right. In their mind, a truly free society could only exist when individuals had unfettered religious and expressive rights.

Like the Founders, we have been enlisted in the fight to protect religious liberty. This year, the magnitude of opposition makes it clear that the heritage of America’s first freedom hangs in the balance. The legal battles of this year will set the course of religious liberty – for us, for our children and for generations beyond.

Jeremy Dys is deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Read more at www.FirstLiberty.org.