America’s Founding generation well understood the principle that, in order to maintain individual liberty and freedom of conscience, civil government must be limited in its purpose and its power. They also knew the history of widespread and bloody religious conflict behind that principle. At the same time, many Americans believed that government should support religion because religion promoted virtuous lives and nurtured the social order needed for self-government. Balancing these concerns was a matter of great significance.
In his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke had written that it is important to “Distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” Locke explained that it was completely unjust for civil government to interfere with peaceful religious activity: “The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests. Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency [absence of pain] of body, and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like. …[T]he whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls.”
Nearly a century later, George Mason and James Madison continued the theme as they collaborated on the final wording of Article XVI of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776. “That Religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence: and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.” Like Mason and Madison, Thomas Jefferson was committed to freedom of conscience, and in 1777 he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779. The bill was intended to disestablish the Anglican Church, but the fiery orator, Patrick Henry, believed that religion was essential in civil society, and he opposed Jefferson’s bill.
In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a general tax called the Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers [Ministers] of the Christian Religion. As required in some New England state laws, citizens would choose which Christian church received their support, or the money could go to a general fund to be distributed by the state legislature. George Washington supported Henry’s bill, arguing that there was nothing wrong with requiring people to pay toward that which they said they supported. Jefferson and Madison, however, opposed Henry’s bill. In 1785, Madison explained in his Memorial and Remonstrance opposing the proposed tax, that religion could not be forced on people, and that state support actually corrupted religion. Henry’s bill requiring tax support for churches was defeated in the subsequent vote by the Virginia legislature.
In 1786, Madison reintroduced the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, and this time the Act was approved by the legislature. Jefferson was serving as the United States Ambassador to France at the time. Madison wrote to Jefferson, “I flatter myself [that the act has] in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
The first, and longest, section of the Statute builds a case for prohibiting establishment of religion.
1. God created the mind free, and no one has legitimate authority to coerce the faith of others. Genuine faith is a matter of individual conscience.
2. It is “sinful and tyrannical” to compel a man to support opinions with which he disagrees.
3. “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions…”
4. It is unjust and a violation of natural rights to require a man to profess belief in any religious position as a condition of his election to public office.
5. State support “tends to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage…”
6. “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
The second section is the enactment itself, which prohibits any law requiring people to attend or pay taxes in support of any church, and guarantees freedom of worship, as well as freedom to express religious opinions.
The third section states that future legislators, as they represent the people themselves, might repeal this law. However, if they do so, they will be in violation of the natural rights of mankind.
In his December 16, 1786 letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that many European citizens approved of the Virginia act for religious freedom. “In fact, it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles; and it is honorable for us, to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”
The Virginia Statute laid groundwork not only for disestablishment in Virginia, but also for the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Read the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom by Thomas Jefferson here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3682
Gennie Westbrook is the Director of Curriculum and Professional Development for The Bill of Rights Institute .