Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1777. In was enacted into state law in 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly. The statute became part if the state's constitution and successfully separated church and state in Virginia. The language and principles expressed within the statute have inspired calls for religious freedom throughout the world.

Annotated Transcript: includes the language of the statute along with the notes of historians.

Freedom of Religion: an easy to understand guide to the statute.

Background

After returning from a meeting of the Continental Congress, Jefferson was determined to eradicate all traces of aristocracy and privilege in the federal and Virginia state government. The United States as a country was in its infancy and Jefferson wanted to uphold the principles for which the American Revolution was fought. Free from the British, Jefferson believed it was time to end the tyranny. The statute created a bitter fight in both houses of the Virginia government. Jefferson was accused of being an enemy of religion and it was with the political savvy of James Madison that the bill was finally passed.

Religious Freedom in Virginia: an overview of the significant legislative moments in Virginia's history.

Background Information: an article that puts the historical context of the statute in place.

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

The statute is divided into three sections. The first emphasizes the natural right of the people to rule themselves even if God created the world. When it come to religion, Jefferson wrote that it is wrong to attempt an individual's freedom of conscious. The second section states the actual law that all people are allowed to worship freely without discrimination. Lastly, in the third section Jefferson states that this law emphasizes the natural right of man, however man is also sovereign. Therefore, this statute is not set in stone and can be changed or repealed by a vote of the people.

Image: a photographic image of the over 200 year old document.

Larger Image: a close-up view of the notorious document.

The Statute: online text of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Authors of the Statute

The three men credited with the passage of the Virginia Statute were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison V, and Archibald Carey. It was the signature of these men that authenticated the binding legal authority of the statute. Jefferson was the actual author of the document. Harrison was the Speaker of the House of Delegates, not to be confused with the 23rd President of the United States. Cary was the Speaker of the Senate.

Thomas Jefferson: an overview of Jefferson's work and ideas concerning freedom of religion.

Benjamin Harrison V: a summary of Harrison's achievements.

Archibald Cary: a look at Cary's part in the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions.

Lasting Importance of the Statute

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the forerunner to the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights. To this day, freedom of religion is one of the most prominent principles of the Constitution of the United States of America. Along with becoming an integral part of America's founding principles, this statute is also still part of the Virginia State Constitution. This post- Declaration of Independence work of Thomas Jefferson is yet another one of his contributions to American history and government.

Religious Freedom and the Founders: an article on the contribution the founding fathers made to freedom of religion in America.

The Statute and the First Amendment: a report on how this Virginia statute led to the 1st Amendment.

Top