BOISE -- A proposal to designate Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day in Idaho has been held in the House State Affairs Committee. The concurrent resolution sponsored by Rep. Jake Ellis, D-Boise, and Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, would commemorate the 1786 adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
“I love U.S. history, I love the connection to understand the values and the principles of the constitution,” said Ellis. “It’s that history and going back and understanding the formation of our government, and certainly our Bill of Rights, that enthused me.”
Resolutions passed by the legislature do not have the full force and effect of law.
Religious Freedom Day has been recognized annually with a presidential proclamation since Congress designated the day in 1993. According to Ellis, 21 other states observe the day, as well. The 1786 statute disestablished the Church of England in the newly independent Virginia, where it had been the official church under colonial law.
“This statute served as the catalyst for the First Amendment, which enshrined in law our conviction to prevent government interference in religion,” said President Donald Trump this month in his Religious Freedom Day proclamation.
A few Republicans on the committee expressed concerns with the proposal.
“Given the activist court that we have today,” asked Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, “do you think that the phrase ‘no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege, or capacity’ is not a bit overbroad?”
The passage in question is a quote from Article 1, Section 4 of the Idaho Constitution.
“No, I don’t,” replied Burgoyne. “I remember when we had in our constitution a prohibition, civil prohibitions on Mormons,” he elaborated. “Can’t vote, can’t hold office, can’t sit on a jury.”
The Constitution of the State of Idaho, ratified in 1890, includes provisions against polygamy which were used at the time to disenfranchise members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the church officially banned the practice of plural marriage in 1904, the disenfranchising language was not removed from the state constitution until 1982.
Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, said she had reservations after receiving a statement in support of the resolution from the ACLU of Idaho.
“When I look at the First Amendment, I see there that we will not make laws respecting an establishment of religion, that we will not prohibit the free exercise thereof,” said Young. “I don’t see anywhere in that a guarantee of freedom from religion, and this is language that I am seeing increasingly.”
“A lot of interpretations, a lot of feelings, a lot of things come out of this discussion, but I think our recognition of a Religious Freedom Day allows us to have that conversation and allows us to reflect,” Ellis said in his closing testimony.
Rep. Barbieri moved to hold the resolution in committee, which passed on a voice vote.