President Donald Trump declared Dec. 29 the anniversary of the Roman Catholic martyr St. Thomas Becket, honoring the 12th-century English bishop as “a lion of religious liberty.”
“Thomas Becket’s death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty,” the president’s proclamation said. “It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs.”
The president highlighted Archbishop Becket’s martyrdom in a proclamation issued Monday, describing how knights of King Henry II of England murdered the Catholic saint in his own church after he refused to acknowledge the king as his supreme ruler.
“His last words on this earth were these,” the proclamation said, “‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ Dressed in holy robes, Thomas was cut down where he stood inside the walls of his own church.”
The White House sends out a proclamation for the 850th anniversary of St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom.— Catherine Hadro (@CatSzeltner) December 29, 2020
He was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his cathedral after his quarrels with King Henry II. Saint Thomas Becket’s feast day is Dec. 29. pic.twitter.com/YjnBrLjYgi
The president’s proclamation heralds Becket as the precursor to “numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West,” particularly the Magna Carta, which declared that “[T]he English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”
“It is because of great men like Thomas Becket that the first American President George Washington could proclaim more than 600 years later that, in the United States, ‘All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship’ and that ‘it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights,’” the proclamation said.
Trump invited “the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches and customary places of meeting with appropriate ceremonies in commemoration of the life and legacy of Thomas Becket” through the proclamation, and highlighted “brave and inspiring shepherds” such as Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Calvinist Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu, who was imprisoned by the Chinese government.
“To honor Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed, and the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed must be protected,” the president’s proclamation said. “The tyranny and murder that shocked the conscience of the Middle Ages must never be allowed to happen again. As long as America stands, we will always defend religious liberty.”
“A society without religion cannot prosper,” the proclamation added. “A nation without faith cannot endure—because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.”
The president’s comments come amidst several high-profile religious freedom disputes that have come to a head during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers across the United States have issued orders restricting or prohibiting religious services to slow the spread of the disease. The Department of Justice and Attorney General William Barr have repeatedly fought against such restrictions, warning that “even in times of emergency,” federal law prohibits religious discrimination.
In December, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington had requested an injunction allowing “sufficient time before Christmas Eve to allow the Archdiocese to plan and celebrate Mass with percentage-based limits rather than a 50-person cap.”
“Under both the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the District’s arbitrary, unscientific, and discriminatory treatment of religious worship is illegal,” the lawsuit said.
Following the lawsuit, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser modified the city’s attendance limits, removing the 50-person limit for religious gatherings and instead capping places of worship at 25% capacity with a maximum of 250 people.
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