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"An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom," in Virginia, 1786

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In Virginia, as the War of Independence approached, the Church of England had become entrenched in a position of power and was having an increasing influence over political affairs in Virginia. Nine of the 13 colonies had an established "official" state religion. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was profoundly convinced in the importance of individual freedom of religion and freedom from religion. He felt that this was the best guarantee that the religious intolerance and bloodshed seen in of many European countries would not be exported to America.

In 1777, he drafted An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. 1 In 1779, he became Governor and introduced the act into the legislature. However, strong opposition from the primarily Anglican "old guard" stalled the bill. An alternative bill was advanced by Patrick Henry. It proposed that Christianity become the established religion of the State and that all denominations be given equal privileges.

Jefferson's bill gradually collected support from Baptists, Presbyterians, freethinkers, Jews, a few Anglicans, people who were tired of religious conflict and others. A dramatic speech by James Madison (1751-1836) to the Virginia General Assembly called A Memorial and Remonstrance 2 dramatically swayed support for Jefferson's bill. Somewhat amended, 3 it became law on 1786-JAN-16. The text of the bill is available online. 4

A key part of the act, Section II reads:

"II. Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burdened 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Elsewhere, the act reads:

"To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical..."

And:

"...our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions ..."

Religious freedom is often called the "first freedom."

Celebration of Religious Freedom:

Religious Freedom Day is pronounced yearly by the President of the U.S. to be held on the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute -- JAN-16.

A Council for America's First Freedom was founded in 1984 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Virginia Statute. They hold a First Freedom Awards Dinner near the anniversary of this law. The Council states that the passage of the Statute in 1784 "...was the first time in the history of western civilization that a law was enacted that protected religious freedom ..." for everyone. 5

References

  1. "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson", Princeton, (1950)
  2. E.S. Gaustad, "Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation", Harper & Row, New York NY, (1987), P. 141-149
  3. ibid, P. 149-151
  4. The text of "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" is available at: http://www.firstfreedom.org/statute.html 
  5. The Council for America's First Freedom has a webpage at: http://www.firstfreedom.org/ 

Copyright 1998 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-JAN-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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