National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the historic signing in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—the document that would lay the groundwork for the religion clauses contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
The principle of separation of Church and State enshrined in those documents guided America’s forefathers and shaped our nation, and it remains a polestar of freedom for populations across the world more than two centuries hence. Yet as with all freedoms, it must not be taken for granted but must be actively, vigilantly protected and preserved.
Our nation’s courts serve as the ultimate bastion for that preservation. Most cases wind through courtrooms each year with the issue of religion never raised. Similarly, while issues affecting all our religious freedoms may be, on occasion, raised in courtrooms, the issues are generally resolved without posing any threat to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
One 2021 case in Los Angeles Superior Court (People v. Masterson), however, surprisingly and unconstitutionally, not only made religion an issue, it violated the long-held rule that courts may not interpret religious doctrine. The case does not concern religion, and no religious organization is a party to the case. It is not a case about a minister, priest, imam, rabbi or other clergy member. Yet an issue impacting upon religious freedom was entered into the case in a ruling that rang alarm bells across Los Angeles and national religious communities. In this case, the judge based her ruling on her own interpretation of religious doctrine, in a way that is contrary to the doctrine espoused by the religion itself.
No religion should be subjected to having its doctrine interpreted by courts, an issue we believe the Founding Fathers put to rest 236 years ago. Let this day mark the day our modern brethren of every faith and calling support the ideals set forth for our nation guaranteeing religious freedom for all faiths.
We thus present the following Open Letter from Religious Leaders: