Fundamental Law and Natural Rights: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
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In June 1776, George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It declared natural rights, the essential liberties of the people, and republican government by consent of the people. The delegates to the Fifth Virginia Convention—the government after the royal governor had fled from Williamsburg—voted to accept the Declaration of Rights and a state constitution rooted upon revolutionary principles of rights and popular government.
When writing about religious liberties in the Declaration of Rights, Mason, influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, wrote, “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.” This principle of religious toleration seemed liberal-minded during the time of the Enlightenment, or age of reason.
A young James Madison disagreed and offered an amendment that fundamentally altered the principle of toleration to a new and revolutionary one—religious liberty. The Declaration of Rights read: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
Madison’s fellow delegates accepted that freedom of religion was an inalienable right (and a duty to God), but they were unwilling to accept that Madison’s amendment disestablished the official Anglican Church as part of the constitution-making. Nevertheless, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans began flooding the House of Delegates with petitions calling for disestablishment. The legislature responded to the demands of their constituents, relieving dissenters of paying taxes for the support of the Anglican Church.
In early 1777, Thomas Jefferson joined the cause of religious liberty in Virginia. Jefferson believed that the Virginia constitution had a variety of shortcomings and won appointment to the committee to revise the state laws with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton. Jefferson’s object was to eradicate “every fiber…of ancient or future aristocracy.”
As an Enlightenment thinker, Jefferson believed that religion was a matter of reason and equated religious liberty with a free mind. Jefferson penned a bill for disestablishment in 1777 but did not present it to the legislature. Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was introduced in the House of Delegates in June 1779.
The preamble asserted that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and thus was free from restraint by the civil government. The bill would enact disestablishment as Jefferson affirmed, “The opinions of man are not the object of civil government.”
The bill, however, was soundly defeated. Many Virginia founders including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, Pendleton, and initially, George Washington, supported a general assessment, or tax money, to be allocated to a denomination of a person’s choice or to schools and education rather than religion. They argued that republican government depended on the virtue of the citizenry and leaders, and that virtue was primarily encouraged by religion. The general assessment bill did not establish a particular denomination or even Christianity broadly as the state religion, but rather sought to support religion to inculcate virtue for republican self-government. The House passed a resolution for the bill in 1784, and Henry chaired the committee to draft it.
Jefferson and Madison (neither of whom was especially known for his piety) formed an improbable alliance with an array of dissenting religious groups including Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians to fight the general assessment. Both sides of the debate wrote petitions to the House to influence the outcome.
Madison weighed in on the debate, anonymously writing the highly influential “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” He wrote: “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. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom passed into law on January 6, 1786. The Assembly enacted the idea into law 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 beliefs….We are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind.
Jefferson and the legislature then made the law and the principle of religious liberty a fundamental right that could never be revoked by a future legislature, binding future generations to the rights of man. “If any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”
Most states pursued religious liberty as a fundamental right and disestablished their churches, though not all did, because of principle of federalism in the U.S. Constitution. In the 1830s, Massachusetts became the last state to disestablish. But, the American Revolution and founding advanced both civil and religious liberty for the American people.
Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.
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Thank you for the interesting, historical and informative essay.