- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2016

As a colonial-era Virginia law upholding religious freedom reaches its 230th anniversary this weekend, traditional values groups are urging Americans to stand up for their rights to live out their beliefs in peace.

Federal and state laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) are based on the words of founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said Thursday.

These federal and state laws — which protect people against substantial burdens on their religious freedom — play “an essential role in protecting the religious minorities of our time,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The organization has created an online educational source for information on the laws called RFRA Central.

On Saturday, President Obama is scheduled to release a proclamation honoring National Religious Freedom Day.

The commemorative day, enacted in 1992, falls on the same day as the 1786 Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom — a measure drafted in 1777 by Jefferson that became the “forerunner of the Constitution’s First Amendment Religion Clauses,” said the Becket Fund.

Also on Saturday, the Family Research Council (FRC) and Vision America are hosting a four-hour broadcast, which will feature religious messages from eight Republican presidential candidates.

The candidates will answer the question, “What do you see as the greatest threat to religious freedom in America today, and what will you do as president to protect our First Freedom?”

Republican presidential candidates who have prepared a response are Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Carly Fiorina, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

The FRC and other groups are alarmed about attacks on religious freedom:

On Thursday, a Christian couple in New York who sometimes rent their barn and farm for weddings were told by a state appellate court that they did not have the right to refuse to host a same-sex wedding on their property.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Robert and Cynthia Gifford in the lawsuit, said the ruling meant “farmers can’t obey their faith in their own backyard.”

The New York Division of Human Rights previously ruled in favor of the lesbian couple, saying the Giffords were guilty of “sexual-orientation discrimination,” and fining them $10,000, plus $3,000 in damages, the ADF said.

The ruling in Gifford v. Erwin was upheld by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, on Thursday. Gay rights groups have hailed the ruling for Melisa Erwin and Jennie McCarthy, but see RFRA laws and other religious-exemption laws as looming threats to their goals.

ADF noted that the Giffords were also ordered to attend “re-education training classes designed to contradict the couple’s religious beliefs about marriage.”

Tony Perkins, president of FRC, said this week that, “As Christians, if we don’t have the freedom to live according to our faith — whether it’s in the home, the workplace or in school — then religious liberty is a meaningless phrase.”

According to FRC, Mr. Perkins will be joined on Saturday’s broadcast by Pastor Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America; and leaders of Liberty Counsel; South Baptist Convention; Oklahoma Wesleyan University; Faith and Public Policy; Open Doors USA; Grace Community Church of Houston; Victory in Truth Ministries of Bucyrus, Ohio; and First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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