Freedom of Religion Is Central to Prison Fellowship’s Mission and American Life
Just one year after he helped pen the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Jefferson considered the bill, which became law in 1786, one of his crowning achievements.
The law paved the way for religious freedom to be included in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Indeed, the First Amendment of the Constitution relies heavily on Jefferson's language in establishing the guarantee of religious freedom. Today, that guarantee is as important as ever.
That's why every year the president of the United States declares January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day. The president calls upon Americans to observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship. (White House Proclamation Religious Liberty Day 2020)
Why is religious freedom so important?
THE FIRST FREEDOM
Freedom of religion is called the first freedom for a reason. Our Founding Fathers recognized that without freedom of conscience, no other freedom can be guaranteed.
Christians, in fact, are the greatest defenders of religious freedom and human liberty—not just for Christians, but for all people. Compare religious freedom in those countries with a Christian heritage to the state of religious freedom in Islamic nations, communist countries, and Buddhist and Hindu nations, and you will see my point.
The reason that Christians place such a high value on human freedom is that freedom itself is part of the creation account in the Bible. God made humans in His image. He gave us a free will to choose to love, follow, and obey Him or to follow our own way."
That free will, given us before the Fall, is part of human nature itself.
… So this question of human freedom goes to the very heart of who we are as Christians and as Americans.
Religious freedom is foundational to who we are as Christians and to the work we do at Prison Fellowship.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR ALL
In 1993, Colson said that even though you might have disagreed with how he exercised his religious liberty, the right to state his faith without fear is the first human right. He added,
Religious liberty is the essence of human dignity. We cannot build our temples on the ruins of individual conscience. For faith does not come through the weight of power, but through the hope of glory."
Colson founded Prison Fellowship with that understanding, fighting to ensure the right to religious freedom—human dignity—for all, including prisoners.
He worked diligently with Congress to pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law properly prohibits the government from restricting a person's religious liberty unless there is a compelling government interest and the government is using the least restrictive means in restricting that liberty. The Supreme Court endorsed the act in January of 2015 when it upheld the right of a Muslim prisoner to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.
The religious liberty guaranteed by this law and by our Constitution has been crucial to carrying out our mission to restore all those affected by crime and incarceration.
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