Religious freedom has been a core value in America ever since her inception and founding, and one of the fundamental natural (unalienable) rights within our nation’s organic laws. As such, it is not conferred upon us by certain political groups or civil institutions. Rather, it is a pre-political inheritance from Almighty God and a basic tenet of Natural Law. As our Declaration of Independence states, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
A major milestone in this part of the American journey occurred 235 years ago this Saturday, January 16. On this day, National Religious Freedom Day, we commemorate the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. January 16, 1786 culminated nearly ten years of hard work, deliberation, debate, and delays on this statute which had its origins in the spring of 1776 through George Mason’s authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This document also directly influenced other foundational American documents that followed, including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights.
In the autumn of 1776, when the decision was made to update the laws of Virginia, the Virginia legislature commissioned a Committee of Revisors to fulfill this charge. Thomas Jefferson was chosen as chairman and what became to be known as a Revisal of the Laws [of the State of Virginia] officially began in January 1777. Jefferson saw the Revisals as necessary and justified in light of the severing of legal connections with the mother country, a need to bring the laws of the individual colonies into conformity with republican principles, and to remove from the existing legal code any remaining vestiges of British monarchical rule. In Jefferson’s words, the Revisal was to structure “a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy…that our whole code must be reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government, and, now that we had no negatives of Councils, Governors, and Kings to restrain us from doing right, it should be corrected, in all it’s parts, with a single eye to reason, and the good of those for whose government it was framed.” Among Jefferson’s deepest concerns, and one of course he hoped the Revisal would remedy, was the issue of religious freedom. While George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights included a guarantee of the free exercise of religion, Jefferson didn’t think it was thorough or explicit enough.
In 1779, after Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia, the committee’s catalog of 126 bills was presented to the General Assembly. However, some of the bills were not considered or adopted and further work on the Revisal was sporadic and slow. This was further aggravated by Jefferson’s subsequent appointment as the American Ambassador to France. On October 31, 1785, after most of a decade and significant correspondence with Jefferson, James Madison revived Jefferson’s vision of seeing the bills enacted into law. He guided them through the legislative process before the Virginia Assembly, presenting 118 bills contained in the Report of the Revisors.
The Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom was one of those (Bill 82) and also the first of five consecutive bills addressing religion. The preamble reads in part, “Almighty God hath created the mind free” and willed “that free it shall remain.” Bill 82 essentially enacted four principles which represented a truly remarkable declaration of intellectual and spiritual independence: no person shall (1) be compelled by civil government to attend or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, nor (2) be punished or restrained by the Commonwealth on account of his/her religious opinions or beliefs; but, on the contrary, every person shall (3) be free to profess and contend for his religious opinions and beliefs, and (4) such activity shall in no way affect his/her civil capacities. This bill in particular was also strongly supported by religious dissenters (primarily Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Quakers) who had suffered under the established church in Virginia and who desired religious freedom.
While only three of the five bills were enacted into law, they represented a church-state model which promoted an accommodation between the interests of the church and the state and prohibited governmental interference with the freedom of religious beliefs and expression.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is one of the most influential and consequential documents in American History. It ended the Church of England’s (Anglican Church) formal establishment as the state religion and it was a precursor to future disestablishment legislation in other states, setting the course for the religious freedom principles that would become enshrined in many state constitutions as well as in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. As James Madison explained, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom “is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier against usurpations on the rights of conscience. As long as it is respected & no longer, these will be safe.”