About Iowa Religious Freedom Day
In late 2013, Susan Sims of Cedar Falls petitioned Governor Terry Branstad to acknowledge Iowa's support for religious freedom by proclaiming religious freedom day on the same day as national Religious Freedom Day. Governor Branstad subsequently proclaimed January 16, 2014, to be Religious Freedom Day in Iowa. For 2015 and subsequent years, the date was changed to April 13th to accommodate the realities of Iowa's weather and legislative calendar. April 13th is Thomas Jefferson's birthday, and he is credited with writing the first religious freedom statute in Virginia in 1786. But April 13th is also significant for various faith groups in any given year, often landing near Easter for Christians and Passover for Jews, on a holy day for Sikhs, sometimes in the midst of Ramadan for Muslims, and so forth. A hymn centered on the search for religious freedom was penned on April 13, 1846, while Mormon refugees sheltered on Iowa's plains after having been driven from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, due to religious intolerance. That hymn, Come, Come Ye Saints is now sung across the globe by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in honor of their pioneer heritage. Iowa's legacy of allowing safe passage to those tens of thousands of pioneers who eventually settled much of the Intermountain West was echoed again in the 1970s when Iowans opened their doors to the Tai Dam people of Laos in 1975 and additional Vietnamese refugees three years later. It is the same legacy that welcomed religious refugees from Bosnia in the 1990s. Iowa's history of welcome should remain a history of tolerance for religious diversity and freedom.
So April 13th is now Iowa's day to honor that tradition. And while no date will connect with every faith, the date is less important than the act of celebrating the essential value of religious freedom in Iowa, in the United States, and in the world. Numerous studies demonstrate the value of a free and diverse religious landscape in any society. When people are free to live and share their faith in the public square, all other civil liberties tend to be stronger. When people act in good faith to live their religion's highest virtues, everyone in society benefits. When people of differing faith perspectives work together, society is more peaceful. When religious citizens respect the rights of non-religious citizens, society is fairer.
Iowa Religious Freedom Day was founded to celebrate all the good that faith communities do in Iowa, as well as to remind all Iowans to respect each other's faith background, whatever it may be. When discourse becomes hostile, we seek to bring the conversation back to a higher plane of fairness for all and dignity for everyone. Faiths disagree. Sometimes people of faith act out of malice or are attacked with malice. Political parties clash over which rights should have priority over others. But when we stop to learn, listen and respect, we are more likely to find common ground that will allow our pluralistic society to make room for everyone. We are more likely to carry on in the best of Iowan traditions.
As Iowa Religious Freedom Day grows and welcomes partnerships from across the religious landscape, we thank Governors Branstad and Reynolds for their annual proclamations, and we thank the many faith groups who have participated in our annual events or who have been active in promoting interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Groups such as The Comparison Project at Drake University and the Des Moines Area Religious Council are but two examples. We look forward to future cooperation across the state for the good of all Iowans.