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After the American colonies declared independence from the United Kingdom, the Virginia General Assembly recognized that many of the laws that operated in King George’s loyal colony of Virginia would not work well in a newly independent state. Thus, in October 1776, the first General Assembly appointed a five-man Committee of Revisors to review the existing laws and redraft them for an independent Virginia. Primary responsibility was assumed by the three lawyers on the committee, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton; but of the three, Jefferson assumed responsibility for the greater part of the drafting. In 1779, after Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia, the committee’s catalog of 126 bills was presented to the General Assembly.
Unfortunately, many of the proposed laws were not adopted or even seriously considered. Jefferson, for example, bemoaned the lack of action on Bill No. 79, a “bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge,” which called for some state funded education at the primary, secondary, and college levels. Bill No. 82, though, was one of the notable successes in the process.
Bill No. 82 was guided through the legislative process by James Madison while Jefferson watched anxiously from Paris where he was serving as U.S. minister. The bill was also strongly supported by religious dissenters (primarily Presbyterians and Baptists) who had suffered under the established church in colonial Virginia and who desired religious freedom and a separation of church and state. Bill No. 82 was finally adopted in 1786.
When Jefferson learned of the bill’s passage, he had the Statute translated into French and Italian and distributed as widely as possible. Seeing the codification of religious liberty as one of the great achievements of his life, Jefferson asked that the Statute be one of the three things (with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia) to be preserved on any memorial erected after his death. The Statute would go on to play a critical role in the development of American religious freedom and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As James Madison explained, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom “is a true standard of Religious liberty: its principle the great barrier agst. usurpations on the rights of conscience. As long as it is respected & no longer, these will be safe.” In the first Supreme Court case concerning the religion clauses of the First Amendment, the Court unanimously declared that the Statute “defined” religious freedom.
The original manuscript in Jefferson’s hand no longer exists. The text of the act as drafted by Jefferson (and approved by the Revisors) as well as the changes adopted by the General Assembly is provided below, with the General Assembly deletions shown in italics and the Assembly’s insertions shown within brackets):
Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that [Whereas] Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; 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 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, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; 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 endeavoring 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 and abhors, 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 temporal[ry] 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 dependance on our religious opinions, any more than on 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 also [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 the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; 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.
We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact [Be it enacted by the 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 [to be] 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.