“Almighty God hath created the mind free”
On January 16, 1786, the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom guaranteeing freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths. The groundbreaking Statute became the model for the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Jefferson recognized that the separation of church and state was essential since coerced faith is meaningless. He wrote that attempts to force people to follow a faith by punishing them “tend to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.”
He also said that forcing people to give money toward promoting opinions that they don’t agree with is “sinful and tyrannical.”
The United States has historically recognized the free exercise of religion as well as freedom from the government-compelled financial support of religious institutions. As recently as 1993, after the Supreme Court limited the scope of the Free Exercise Clause in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, where it was introduced by Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and by a vote of 97-3 in the Senate. The text of RFRA prohibited the government from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion, and the only way for the state to override a religious claim was through the showing of a “compelling governmental interest.”
But the America of 2019 is a very different place. Today, the RFRA is only applied to actions of the Federal government and in states that have adopted similar language.
On one hand, religious organizations are fighting for taxpayer funding of sectarian projects, and on the other hand, secular interests have asserted claims that small business owners should be compelled to participate in business activities that violate their religious beliefs. Expression of religious belief is under constant threat of censorship by monopolistic online communication companies. Yet, freedom must prevail and that includes the freedom to express opinions or not pay tax dollars to maintain somebody else’s house of worship. Freedom will only prevail as long as Americans recognize that there is a legitimate right to be wrong on issues of faith, and the way Americans treat peaceful outliers on the fringes of society and faith will serve as America’s proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” as religious freedom issues go mainstream.
Jefferson knew that the ideals of the Virginia Statute could be challenged or eliminated by the generations that followed, and perhaps it is one of the reasons why he asked that it be one of the three accomplishments listed on his epitaph along with writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia. The Virginia legislators who approved the statute in 1786 recognized the potential for change, and call the Americans of 2019 and beyond to a greater truth and a higher reality:
“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.”
The full text of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is below.
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.
“Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786” (PDF). Virginia Memory.