In October 2015, my family left our home in Fredericksburg, Va. to travel throughout the Eastern European nation of Croatia for pro-life work.
We visited the town of Sisak to meet with local leaders, including Catholic Bishop Vlado Košić. In the middle of our meeting, Bishop Košić looked intently at me, and said: “Never take your religious freedom for granted.”
He described how Croatians lost their religious freedom for nearly five decades under an oppressive communist government, during which time people were unable to practice— or even talk about — their faith without risk of severe punishment.
Bishop Košić explained that Croatia finally regained its freedom following the brutal Balkan war that broke up Yugoslavia at the cost of tens of thousands of Croatian lives. Once communism was overcome, Christians, and people of all faiths, celebrated the restoration of their religious freedom. Today, Croatia’s churches are full and overflowing.
Bishop Košić cautioned us: “Religious freedom is not free. It comes at a cost. You Americans have been given the gift of religious freedom. Protect it, and never take it for granted.”
Once we returned to Virginia, I was on a mission to learn more about our American religious freedom and how to protect this gift. To my surprise, I discovered that it was right in my hometown of Fredericksburg where the foundation of religious freedom was established for America.
On Jan. 13, 1777, six months after penning the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson met in Fredericksburg with George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and Thomas Ludwell Lee, on the corner of Caroline Street and William Street, at what was then Weedon’s Tavern.
During their five days of meetings, Jefferson took responsibility for drafting a religious freedom bill. The landmark legislation was introduced in the General Assembly and enacted as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on Jan. 16, 1786.
Jefferson’s religious freedom bill — one of his three proudest accomplishments — established the right for all people to practice their faith freely and ensured that government would not foist a state religion upon anyone.
The statute began by stating that “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
It added that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry...nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
It concluded by declaring that repeal of the religious freedom act would be “an infringement of natural right.”
Three years later, Jefferson’s statute provided the groundwork for the religious freedom protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....”
What happened in Fredericksburg changed the course of history. Now, nearly 250 years later, religious freedom is one of America’s most pressing issues, and religious liberties are under increasing attack.
Rev. Kenneth Griepp, a New York pastor, and members of his Church @ the Rock congregation in Brooklyn were arrested by the state of New York for peacefully offering women life-affirming alternatives outside of a Queens, New York abortion facility.
Churches and synagogues through California were unlawfully shut down by a draconian gubernatorial administration under the guise of COVID-19 safety precautions. Internationally known minister Pastor John MacArthur was threatened with jail time and fines and dragged into litigation by both Los Angeles County and the state, ultimately winning $800,000 in a settlement.
Artisan cake designer Cathy Miller was sued twice by the government when two women wandered into Tastries, her West Coast bake shop, seeking a cake for their lesbian wedding. Cathy referred them to a competitor rather than compromise her biblical belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Seventeen doctors and medical care workers had to sue the state of New York to get a restraining order against an unconstitutional vaccine mandate that had no religious exemptions and would have forced them to choose between their religious beliefs and employment.
Religious symbols, statues, and churches are being vandalized, burned, and torn down with government officials turning a blind eye.
Every branch of the U.S. military has denied every single request for a COVID-19 vaccine religious accommodation from every service member who applied for one, even chaplains.
These are just a few examples of challenges taken on by attorneys at Thomas More Society, a religious liberty legal powerhouse. Additional threats occur with alarming frequency.
As an American, you have the opportunity and responsibility to protect religious freedom by living out your faith boldly and publicly, educating yourself and educating others, speaking up for others being persecuted for their faith, voting for elected officials who are committed to protecting religious freedom, participating in religious freedom rallies or marches, joining groups like the Knights of Columbus, a service organization that advocates for religious freedom in the public square, supporting legal groups like Thomas More Society, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Becket Fund that fight to protect religious liberty, and celebrating religious freedom on Jan. 16 — National Religious Freedom Day — the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
As we mark National Religious Freedom Day on Sunday, let’s remember the cautionary words from Croatian Bishop Košić: “Never take your religious freedom for granted.” Let’s commit to preserve the irrevocable, God-given right to religious freedom, and vigilantly protect that right for all Americans.
David Bereit is a pro-life leader, speaker, media spokesman, strategist, and leadership mentor.