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Freedom of Religion is a basic tenet of U.S. law and a cornerstone of American democracy. Because the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the Congress from making laws "respecting an establishment of religion" and impeding the free exercise of religion, it guarantees not only freedom of religious expression, but also freedom from persecution because of one's religious beliefs.
On January 16th, the United States observes Religious Freedom day, commemorating the passage into law in 1786 of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Scholars consider it to be a precursor to the First Amendment and a vital step along the way to securing the separation of church and state, for the protection of both.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom proclaimed that "No man shall ... suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess ... their opinions in matters of religion."
This precept is echoed in the United Nations' 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article eighteen that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion." Sixty years later, the "defamation of religions" resolution introduced at the United Nations calls for bans on speech as a mechanism to deal with intolerance. The United States opposes the resolution because of the value we place on both freedom of religion and expression. We are strongly committed to promoting respect for all religious communities and fighting against intolerance.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed: One cannot, she said, protect the freedom of religion by instituting anti-defamation policies "that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion." Rather, strong legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression are the best antidote to intolerance, said Secretary Clinton:
"An individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech. The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."
True to the spirit of Religious Freedom day and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the United States will stand for the religious freedom of all people around the world.