The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom begins with an extended preamble that provides commanding arguments for the necessity of religious freedom. Jefferson writes that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and that “all attempts to influence it” by civil authorities, through financial burdens or legal punishments, only “beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” As men who are “themselves but fallible,” such politicians should not assume “dominion over the faith of others.” And because religious beliefs do not bear on citizens’ civil rights, restricting those beliefs “tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage.” Jefferson goes on to argue that government should not regulate opinion and only protect citizens from “overt acts against peace and good order,” and “that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself.”
The statute then declares 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, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” The statute goes on to acknowledge that future assemblies may change the law; even so, “we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind,” and any legislation that repeals the statute “will be an infringement of natural right.”
Before the American Revolution, the Church of England was the established church in, meaning that colonists were legally required to attend its services and, through taxes, to support its ministers financially. In addition, the church’s controlled a number of governmental functions, including relief for the poor and the supervision of orphans. A number of laws discriminated in favor of Anglicans, and as the war approached, dissenters from the Church of England, particularly Presbyterians and , began to experience active persecution. Scores of ministers were incarcerated for disturbing the peace or preaching without a license, and some dissenters were assaulted. Deeply opposed to such persecution, James Madison inserted into the Virginia Declaration of Rights—authored by and adopted by the Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776—a provision that generally guaranteed the “free exercise of religion,” but this left many issues still unresolved, in particular whether the new state could maintain an established church and support it with taxes.
By the time that the newly established House of Delegates met in the autumn of 1776, the state’s leaders desperately needed the support of Virginia’s religious dissenters in the war against Britain. A large and growing community that accounted for approximately one-fifth to one-third of the population, dissenters recognized their opportunity and insisted upon improvements in religious freedom in return for their support. Jefferson and Madison, sitting together on the Committee for Religion in the House of Delegates, subsequently led a successful effort toon dissenters, but a number of restrictions on full religious liberty were still in place. While some of these were liberalized over the course of the war, at the war’s end there were still restrictions on dissenting ministers’ ability to perform the marriage ceremony, and Anglican vestries continued to control certain civil functions in most of the state.
In 1776, Jefferson also suggested that the House of Delegates appoint a committee to revise Virginia’s colonial laws in order to remove vestiges of the monarchy and align them more closely with the state’s republican principles and its new, independent status. As part of the revisal committee, and consistent with his ownand Enlightenment philosophy, Jefferson produced “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” declaring “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Jefferson was elected governor on June 1, 1779, so in his stead John Harvie introduced the bill to the House of Delegates on June 12 amid debates over marriages performed by dissenting ministers and the future of church property. Jefferson’s bill excited passions both in favor and against, and although it was read twice, the House postponed a third reading and eventually tabled the bill.
After the British surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781, the need for dissenters’ support for mobilization largely evaporated. With the House of Delegates still dominated by Anglicans, dissenters’ requests for greater religious freedom and separation of church and state were largely ignored, in sharp contrast to the war years. On November 11, 1784, a resolution supporting “a moderate tax or contribution, annually,” to benefit all Christian sects—something that the dissenters had vehemently opposed during the war—was adopted by the House. Designed as a compromise, this so-called General Assessment allowed taxpayers to designate a particular church (absent such designation, their money would go to schools—which, themselves, were largely run by ministers at the time) and was championed by many of Virginia’s leaders, including, , Benjamin Harrison, and John Marshall. In a belated reaction led by Virginia’s dissenters, scores of petitions with thousands of signatures were circulated in opposition to any religious assessment. Madison anonymously produced his famous , and that effort was joined by even more popular (albeit less remembered) petitions circulated by Baptist and Presbyterian interests. In the end, the General Assessment died in the House without receiving a final vote, and on October 31, 1785, Madison reintroduced 117 bills from the earlier committee to revise Virginia’s laws. Tucked away among those bills was Jefferson’s original bill “for establishing religious freedom.”
Even then, conservative members of the assembly tried to weaken it. Efforts to delete the entire preamble—an endorsement of Enlightenment principles and religious freedom—were defeated, as was an effort to modify Jefferson’s generic reference to “the holy author of our religion” so that it specified “Jesus Christ.” As Madison later related, the amendment “would have been, to imply a restriction on the liberty defined by the Bill, to those professing his [Jesus’s] religion only,” or, as Jefferson said, it was clear that religious freedom encompassed “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Ultimately, the bill was adopted and signed into law on January 19, 1786, with only minor amendments to Jefferson’s text.
Almost immediately upon its adoption, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom became a bellwether for religious liberty. Throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, it was cited as the true measure of religious freedom and relied upon extensively in state constitutional and legislative debates, particularly when church-state relations were at issue. With James Madison leading the fight for the Bill of Rights in the first Congress under the new United States Constitution, and Jefferson serving as one of its chief advocates, the statute is generally credited with influencing the requirement in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In Virginia, Jefferson referenced the statute in his controversial decision to exclude a minister from teaching religion at the newly founded University of Virginia. In 1846, Virginia’s highest court recognized the statute as “[d]eclaring to the Christian and the Mahometan, the Jew and the Gentile, the Epicurean and the Platonist, … that so long as they keep within its [the law’s] pale, all are equally objects of its protection; … (leaving reason free to combat error) securing purity of faith and practice far more effectually than by clothing the ministers of religion with exclusive temporal privileges; and exposing them to the corrupting influence of wealth and power.”
In the 1879 case Reynolds v. United States, the United States Supreme Court, rejecting a claim that Mormon polygamy was protected by the First Amendment, quoted the Virginia Statute to define religious freedom. In 1947 the court similarly declared, in Emerson v. Board of Education, that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “had the same objective and were intended to provide the same protection against governmental intrusion on religious liberty as the Virginia statute.” This view has been broadly accepted in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence and among historians, although it has more recently come under attack by several conservative members of the Supreme Court.
Internationally, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom has also had enormous significance in encouraging religious freedom and separation of church and state. Almost immediately upon its adoption, Jefferson had copies published in Europe. Edwin Gaustad, one of America’s leading religious historians, noted that “[f]rom the perspective of more than two centuries later, it is possible to add that the Jeffersonian law [on religious freedom] set Western Civilization and democratic republics everywhere upon a dramatically different path.”