The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment to the United States Constitution (adopted 1791).

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted in 1777, introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 by Thomas Jefferson, enacted into state law on January 16, 1786, disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion. Here are the crucial points annotated:

  1. “[O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Church, President Jefferson noted that the government cannot reach opinion but only actions. Emphasis on opinion. Freedom of opinion does not give you the right to act in any manner you wish. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
  2. “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.” Opinions and beliefs. You cannot be punished or constrained on account of these. You are free to profess your religious opinions and beliefs with due recognition of time and place constraints. You cannot stand in a physics or geometry classroom and profess your Christian faith or through your expression of faith disrupt the teaching of physics and geometry. You are free in the public square and in your places of worship free to express these opinions and practice these beliefs—as long as they do not interfere with the liberties of other persons.
  3. “The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others.” A whereas clearly intended to delegitimize the supposed power of religious entrepreneurs in their endeavor to impose their religious opinions on others and compel other’s beliefs.
  4. “To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own.” This is a nice statement of the principle that freedom of religion requires freedom from religion. I cannot be free to hold an opinion concerning a religion or the absence thereof if I am forced to suffer the religious opinions of others. Simply put, your profession of faith can dictate neither my consciousness nor my liberty.
  5. “Even forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind.” That we have come to a place where churches are excused from the burdens of paying for government in light of this reveals a profound betrayal of the founding principles of religious liberty.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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