By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *Three years after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. With the assistance of James Madison, the bill became law on January 16, 1786. The law guaranteed that all individuals have the natural right to exercise their religious beliefs.
Jefferson considered this law one of his greatest achievements. In fact, in his own full epitaph, he wrote: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of the University of Virginia.”
Today, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is one of the most important and influential documents in the history of our nation. Jefferson did not get the law passed easily. In fact, he once said that his fight for this statute was the hardest of all his political battles to win. And, even though we still espouse the principles set forth in this fundamental document, the fight still goes on to interpret what religious freedom means.
Each year, on January 16, our nation commemorates the Virginia General Assembly's adoption of Thomas Jefferson's landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. As he begins his second term, President Obama did not fail to mark the occasion. On National Religious Freedom Day, he released a statement to celebrate the day. “Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose,” Obama began. “Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose.”
The president’s words strike a note dear to the American people. Almost 90 percent of Americans hold that true religious freedom is not merely a question of religious worship. Religious freedom means the freedom to follow one’s conscience and practice the core beliefs and values of one’s religion. Freedom of religion is more than the sacred right to worship. It guarantees the right to live out one's faith both in the home and in the public square.
We applaud the president’s statement. Yet, we still wonder what his words actually mean in terms of religious freedom. His administration has strenuously and resolutely pushed forth the Affordable Care Act provision of Obamacare which mandates employers to provide coverage for contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs in their employees' health plans. The continual protests from believers of all faiths and non-believers as well not to force individuals to act against their religious beliefs have done little to change the administration’s position.
Recently, Tyndale House Publishers won a court injunction so that they would not have to comply with the healthcare mandate to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. The White House has decided to challenge the injunction. Where is religious freedom? To whom does this right belong? Does the White House have the right to limit its scope?
In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, President Obama showed exemplary care and respect for human life. On January 16, he spoke before an audience that included children who had written to him after the mass violence in Connecticut. His words strike a responsive chord in the heart of every American. The president said, “Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.”
Great rhetoric and indeed a most noble ideal! To protect our children from violence. The president urges our country to do the right thing. Once again we applaud his words. But he does not take them to their logical and most obvious conclusion. We must protect all our children. We must protect the most vulnerable. As long as his administration vehemently pursues its pro-abortion agenda, it is not protecting all our children. It is not guaranteeing all our children their most fundamental right, the right to life itself.
For any nation to remain strong and secure, it must do more than espouse the principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all. It must put those principles into practice. It must apply those principles consistently, to even the most vulnerable and the weakest among us.
The rhetoric of speech-making is one thing. The reality of governing is another. Like every president who went before him, President Obama undoubtedly would like to have a prominent place in the presidential pantheon. In his second term, he faces serious issues that divide our nation. He needs our prayers that he be guided by a wisdom that goes beyond partisan politics and the lobbying of special interest groups who deliver votes. He needs the grace to promote fundamental human rights, not partially and on occasion, but clearly, consistently and fully.
As the president rolls up his sleeves to deal with the challenges before us, it is no longer about winning votes. History will be his judge. Will he be able to move beyond the rhetoric to the reality of leading a nation united in pursuit of the common good?Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.