Backgrounder on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Reference: InfoUSA (U.S. Department of State)

In Virginia, the American Revolution led to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, which had been tied closely to the royal government. Then the question arose as to whether the new state should continue to impose taxes to be used for the support of all recognized churches. The proposal had a number of supporters who, even if they no longer accepted an established church, still believed that religion should be supported by the public purse.

For some Virginians, however, imposing religion on people smacked of tyranny. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom would later be president of the United States, argued that religious beliefs should be solely matters of individual conscience and completely immune from any interference by the state. Moreover, religious activity of any sort should be wholly voluntary. Not only did they oppose taxing people to support an established church, but they also objected to forcing people to pay taxes even for their own church. To Jefferson, a high wall of separation should always keep church and state apart.

Jefferson drafted the following measure, but it was Madison who skillfully secured its adoption by the Virginia legislature in 1786. It is still part of modern Virginia’s constitution, and it has not only been copied by other states but was also the basis for the Religion Clauses in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Both men considered this bill one of the great achievements of their lives, and Jefferson directed that on his tombstone he should not be remembered as president of the United States or for any of the other high offices he held, but as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as the founder of the University of Virginia.

For further reading: William Lee Miller, The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic (1985); Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause and the First Amendment (1986); Merrill D. Peterson and Robert C. Vaughn, eds., The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History (1988).

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