Noting the anniversary of a historic religious-freedom bill

Friday, January 15, 1999

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia, also drafted a Virginia statute that has been hailed by many historians as a beacon for religious liberty worldwide.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted on Jan. 16, 1786, preceding the creation of the First Amendment by five years. The Virginia statute was written by Jefferson at the height of the 18th-century Enlightenment — a period of great skepticism of religious dogma and other government-prescribed truths.

Jefferson's Virginia law, grounded in Enlightenment philosophy, disestablished the Anglican Church of Virginia as the state's official church and forever proclaimed the separation of church and state.

Before his statute was enacted, the Virginia colony as well as several other colonies had laws that established the Anglican Church as the official church. Virginia had a law that punished heresy by death, a blasphemy law that punished religious expression and practices, and a law that mandated years of imprisonment for those who dared to question or scoff at the Anglican Trinity. Virginians, moreover, were taxed to support the Anglican Church.

And just before the passage of the religious-freedom statute, the Virginia Assembly was contemplating a general assessment law that would provide tax dollars to many Christian sects.

The genius of the statute and its influence on the republic are reason aplenty for yearly celebration, according to the Council for America's First Freedom, a nonprofit group based in Richmond, Va., that was founded in 1984 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the statute. In 1992, President George Bush signed the first proclamation anointing January 16 as Religious Freedom Day.

President Clinton yesterday issued a Religious Freedom Day proclamation.

Clinton said Jefferson's Virginia statute “was designed to prevent religious discrimination and to protect Virginians from pressure to join or support any church,” and “served as a model for the First Amendment of our Constitution, the guarantee of freedom of religion that has beckoned so many people fleeing persecution to seek sanctuary in this land.”

Robert O'Neil, a University of Virginia law professor and board member of the council, said that the dual protections of religious freedom embedded in the Virginia statute were later codified in the nation's Bill of Rights.

“The Supreme Court has declared that the Virginia statute was the antecedent to the language of the First Amendment and that is certainly a logical assumption,” O'Neil said. “No time prior to the statute was there appreciation of the dual nature of religious freedom.”

O'Neil said that Jefferson realized that it was not enough to protect religious worship and belief, but that there was an additional need to guarantee that government maintained considerable separation of religion.

Merrill D. Peterson, a renowned Jefferson historian and author of Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, in 1994 dubbed the Virginia statute “one of the main pillars of American democracy and a beacon of light and liberty to the world.”

The Virginia statute, codified in three sections, called on Virginia legislators to cease their support of official religions.

“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief,” the statute states in part.

In support of the Virginia statute, James Madison wrote and disseminated to his colleagues in the Virginia Assembly his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. O'Neil referred to Memorial as the “intellectual affirmation” of the statute.

“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,” Madison wrote. “This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men.”

The vast majority of respected historians and Jefferson scholars maintain that for Jefferson religion was a personal pursuit that ought not include government involvement. Nonetheless, some scholars, especially religious conservatives, have begun to suggest that Jefferson's ideas and the statute were not intended to bar government involvement with religion, provided the government involvement was neutral.

Peterson called such a notion ludicrous.

“Present-day neoconservatives and spokesmen for the religious right argue, for essentially political reasons, that a common religion is the necessary glue of the nation, that we began as a Christian people, and that however pluralist we may have become, the survival of the republic rests upon the foundation of Christian or perhaps Judeo-Christian belief,” Peterson wrote in a 1994 essay in The Atlantic Monthly. “God forbid, they say, that the government should regulate our economic behavior, but it ought to regulate moral and religious belief.

“Again, the whole thrust of Jefferson's philosophy was to reject that position, to reject any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society,” Peterson continued. “He sought to raise the republic on the inalienable rights of man, allowing every citizen sovereignty over his own mind and conscience.”

O'Neil said the importance of church-state separation should be remembered, celebrated, and appreciated every year. Moreover, O'Neil said we should remember other countries in which religious liberty is often merely a dream.

“I think because it is easy for us to take for granted this extraordinary system in which we live, we often assume a high degree of separation and a high level of protection for worship in many other countries,” O'Neil said.

In proclaiming Religious Freedom Day, Clinton also echoed his concerns about the lack of worldwide recognition of religious liberty.

“We cannot ignore the suffering of men and women across the globe today who are harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and executed simply for seeking to live by their own beliefs,” Clinton said. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that must be upheld by every nation and guaranteed by every government.”