Honor MLK on Religious Freedom Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Most schools recognize the day — as they should. But will they teach students about Dr. King’s Christian faith, which motivated and guided his campaign for civil rights?

During his Birmingham civil rights campaign, Dr. King required every participant to sign a pledge committing to do ten things. The first was to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” Others included the expectation that all participants would “walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love;” and “pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.”

To truly understand Martin Luther King, students must learn about his Christian faith. It was at the heart of what he did.

This year, something else worth celebrating happens to fall on the same day as Martin Luther King Day, and it’s a perfect fit. Every year since 1993, the President proclaims January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day and asks the nation to celebrate its religious liberty. It is the anniversary of the passage in 1786 of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson.


The men who drafted the Constitution leaned heavily on Jefferson’s statute in establishing the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. Today, it is more important than ever that we remind ourselves of that protection.

Since Martin Luther King Day and Religious Freedom Day fall on the same day this year, it is a perfect time for schools to help students connect the dots between Martin Luther King’s fight for civil rights and the freedom of religious expression in America. Dr. King’s call for justice was guided by his religious convictions and the liberty to act on those convictions.

You’ve heard me say often that religious freedom is coming under increasing assault in this country. It’s one reason I and others drafted and signed the Manhattan Declaration, which has been signed by half a million people. The Declaration specifically cites Dr. King’s magnificent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he taught that “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” An unjust law, however, “is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law,” and therefore has no binding power over human conscience.

It’s vital that every church defend freedom of religion, the bulwark of all of our freedoms. Tell your church leaders about the Manhattan Declaration and about Religious Freedom Day. Ask them to talk to your congregation about the importance of religious liberty. In fact, devote a sermon to it!

You can also help clear up some of the confusion over religious liberty in our public schools. Students can pray in school. They can read the Bible.

Be sure your church celebrates Religious Freedom Day — there’s no better way to honor the legacy of Dr. King.

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