Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

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Thomas Jefferson, author of the Statute

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777,[1] introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, and on January 16, 1786 enacted into state law through the assistance of James Madison.[2] The legislation is one of only three accomplishments Jefferson instructed be included in his epitaph.[3]

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom restricted religious discrimination such as that which occurred later against against the Danbury Baptists - it is Jefferson's sympathetic return letter to them famous for originating the phrase "separation of church and state".[4][5] Passage of the legislation capped a decade-long campaign to disestablish the Church of England, which had been the official state church for the colony since 1607. According to the Library of Virginia,

Baptists led the campaign, joined by Presbyterians and others during the American Revolution, which over time became a push to provide full freedom of religious belief and practice to all Virginians, including Catholics, Jews, and other people who were not Protestant Christians. Under the English Act of Toleration, adopted in 1689, Protestants who were not members of the Church of England enjoyed some limited religious liberty, but in Virginia they were required to pay taxes to support the clergymen of the Church of England, and their marriage ceremonies had to be performed by Church of England ministers.[6]

Jefferson, who authored the phrase, "wall of separation", and Madison, who penned the 1st amendment, thus have both their views represented in this legislation so crucial to today's debate over Separation of church and state.

James Madison was instrumental in helping pass the Statute


Written in 1777 and first introduced in 1779, Jefferson's statute was repeatedly allowed to be overlooked in the Virginia Assembly.[7] However, the issue of religious funding became an issue in 1784, when Patrick Henry introduced legislation titled "A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion".[8] James Madison and others led opposition for this bill[9] and culminated in Madison's authorship of the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. As noted by the Library of Congress, "Madison revived it[Jefferson's statute] as an alternative to Henry's general assessment bill and guided it to passage in the Virginia Assembly in January 1786."[10]

Text of legislation

An Act for establishing religious Freedom.

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,

That 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, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;

That even the 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 our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,

That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,

That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;

That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;

That 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;

That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;

And finally, that 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:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that 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. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that 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.[11]

Autobiographical mention

Jefferson's autobiography provides more insight on the Virginia Statute. Jefferson stated,

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.[12]
Therefore, it appears that this was actually a more liberal statement by not using the name "Jesus Christ" at the time, much moreso than the clearly Christian origins of William Penn a century earlier. The Virginia legislature wanted to ensure all religions were "within the mantle of it's protection". Nevertheless, while it may have protected the beliefs of atheists or "infidel[s]" as Jefferson stated, the references to a Creator show such a belief was requisite for stating inalienable rights accorded by law.

Recent notoriety

On February 20, 2012, 2,500 religious leaders opposing Obama's birth control mandate signed a letter protesting the mandate. Organized by the Family Research Council, the letter quoted from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,[13]

to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.


  1. Atkinson, Kathleen (2007). "Early Virginians and Religious Freedom for Americans." Virginia Commonwealth University. The World Religions in Richmond Project.
  2. Virginia Historical Society. "16 January 1786: Statute for Religious Freedom." On This Day: Legislative Moments in Virginia History.
  3. "Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson." The Jefferson Monticello.
  4. Mount, Steve. "Jefferson's Wall of Separation Letter."
  5. Jefferson, Thomas (1802, January 1). "Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists." Library of Congress.
  6. "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786." Shaping the Constitution. Virginia Memory: Library of Virginia.
  7. The Serpentine Wall
  8. A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion
  9. Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments
  10. Religion and the State Governments
  11. "Transcription: Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786." Virginia Memory: Library of Virginia.
  12. Jefferson, Thomas (1821, January 6). "Autobiography."
  13. Gilbert, Kathleen (2012, February 20). "2,500 Religious Leaders, Every U.S. Bishop Oppose Obama Mandate." LifeSiteNews.