A Bill for establishing Religious Freedom

This Day (Church and State Edition)

On this day in 1786, the General Assembly, after much debate, passed the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson and championed in the House of Delegates by James Madison, the bill effectively severed the connection between church and state in Virginia. From our entry:

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.”

You can read the full text of the bill here, as well as the text of an earlier version, introduced in 1779 but tabled. And a video from the Library of Virginia showing off the institution’s copy of the act.

IMAGE: “A Bill for establishing Religious Freedom, printed for the consideration of the People,” a broadside printed in Williamsburg in 1779 and the earliest known printed version of Thomas Jefferson’s proposed bill (Trustees of the Boston Public Library)


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