January 15 is World Religion Day inaugurated in 1950 in celebration of spiritual unity and peace among religious faiths. This year, this holiday comes the day before this nation celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the world’s great spiritual leaders whose lifelong dedication to human rights illustrates the amount a single individual can accomplish if his faith is put into action. Dr. King’s belief in justice and equal rights transformed the American landscape in so many ways.
In her article published on the Stream, Catherine Shackelford reminds us that Dr. King “founded his political platform on spiritual principles and courageously acted on his Christian faith. For example, he required everyone involved in the Birmingham civil rights campaign to sign a pledge that promised to ‘walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.’ ‘If any earthly institution or custom conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to oppose it,’ Dr. King said. ‘You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.’”
“You must never allow the transitory, evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”
Today, some 5 billion people, 75 percent of the world’s population, live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, which often target religious minorities. If Dr. King were alive today, he would undoubtedly be in the forefront of fighting for the rights of all people to practice their chosen faith.
And so it is fitting that January 16 has also been named Religious Freedom Day in the United States in honor of the anniversary of the day in 1786 that a little-known statute was passed in the State of Virginia, setting the standard for freedom of religion and belief. A year before the American Constitution and five years before the Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the first law to state “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” and that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.”
“All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.”
In his article on World Religion News, David Aden reminds us that by affirming the right to religious freedom, “we inherit the responsibility to recognize and defend the same right and responsibility for our friends, neighbors and those with whom we disagree.”
Let us celebrate all three milestones and honor the legacies of Dr. King and Thomas Jefferson with a new commitment to defend and protect the rights of all people to act according to their conscience.