234 years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned these words: “…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Yesterday marked the anniversary of Jefferson’s hallmark Virginia Statute of January 16, 1786. This critical legislation installed freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state into our nation’s political apparatus, and inspired the enshrinement of freedom of religion or belief in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
America’s framers and founders understood then, as we do now, that countries are at their best when governments allow all persons to exercise their religious freedom as they see fit, free from government interference. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right and foundational to human dignity. A government’s protection of this right is critical to its nation’s prosperity and the flourishment of its citizenry.
This is why the International Religious Freedom Alliance I announced at last year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is significant. Freedom-loving nations must stand up and speak up for those whose fundamental freedoms are infringed upon. We must labor to ensure that religious persecution, a present-day reality, becomes a thing of the past. This is also why continuing to make progress on our agenda at this year’s Ministerial could not be more urgent. As it is written in Galatians 6:9, we will not grow weary in our well doing. With our mandate before us, and our work in front of us, we will continue to fight to secure a world that respects and promotes religious freedom.