Obama Declared January 16th “Religious Freedom Day”

“Our long history of religious tolerance and pluralism has strengthened our country, helped create a vibrant civil society, and remained true to the principles enshrined in our founding documents.” President Obama 01-13-2012

In September of 2001, I was a freshman at an all-girls college in Pittsburgh, PA.  After the attacks on September 11th, I remember driving around the city and seeing a stuffed figure, clad in a turban, hanging from the rafters of a resident’s porch. I was terrified and disgusted. I also became aware, very quickly, that America was not a friendly place for Muslims. It was the first time I remember being awoken to religious intolerance in the United States.

Today marks the 19th ‘Religious Freedom Day’ celebrated in the U.S.  In 1993, George Bush declared January 16th, also Martin Luther King Day, as Religious Freedom Day. On the same day, in 1786, a passage called the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was passed. It was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and protected citizens from religious intolerance by allowing them to express their religious beliefs without prejudice.

As I listened to quotes from Presidents Obama’s statement today on N.P.R., I could not help but feel a quandary.  In the press release sent out by the White House President Obama says, “For nearly four centuries, men and women have immigrated to America’s shores in pursuit of religious freedom. Hailing from diverse backgrounds and faiths, countless settlers have shared a simple aspiration — to practice their beliefs free from prejudice and persecution”.

Four centuries ago, when the Puritans came to America to escape religious persecution, they started a frightening trend of their own: disavowing those whose beliefs were different from their own. Now, hundreds of years later, America continues that trend.  In 2010, when an Islamic group wanted to build a mosque near ground zero the proposal was met with vehement disapproval. The politicians and “concerned citizens” argued that it was too close to where the towers had stood. What reason can be argued against building mosques in Tennessee and California where there was no tragedy?  What hallowed ground exists in these states?

Though we do not as a nation commit mass murder in the name of a religion, it does not make us an all-tolerant country. As a Non-Christian, I feel the Christian religion constantly imposed upon me, by the country, the media and politicians. A prime example is displayed in President Obama’s press release, “On Religious Freedom Day, we celebrate this historic milestone, reflect upon the Statute’s declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and reaffirm that the American people will remain forever unshackled in matters of faith.”  Religion is so intertwined in politicians’ messages that it is hard to separate the two but I ask, on January 16, Religious Freedom Day, and all days going forward, that they try.