Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786)

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This historic statute, one of the preeminent documents in the history of religious liberty, climaxed a ten-year struggle for the separation of church and state in Virginia. On the eve of the Revolution Baptists were jailed for unlicensed preaching, and james madison exclaimed that the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages." The Church of England (Episcopal) was the established church of Virginia, supported by public taxes imposed on all. The state constitution of 1776 guaranteed that everyone was "equally entitled to the free exercise of religion," but the convention defeated a proposal by Madison that would have ended any form of an establishment of religion. By the close of 1776 the legislature, responding to dissenter petitions, repealed all laws punishing any religious opinions or modes of worship, exempted dissenters from compulsory support of the established church, and suspended state taxation on its behalf. But the legislature reserved for future decision the question whether religion ought to be supported by voluntary contributions or by a new establishment of all Christian churches.

In 1779 an indecisive legislature confronted two diametrically opposed bills. One was a general assessment bill, providing that the Christian religion should be "the established religion" supported by public taxation and allowing every taxpayer to designate the church that would receive his money. The other was thomas jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom, which later provided the philosophical basis for the religion clauses of the first amendment. The preamble, a classic expression of the American creed on intellectual as well as religious liberty, stressed that everyone had a "natural right" to his opinions and that religion was a private, voluntary matter of individual conscience beyond the scope of the civil power to support or restrain. Jefferson rejected the bad tendency test for suppressing opinions and proposed "that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of the civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.…" The bill, which protected even freedom of irreligion, provided that no one should be compelled to frequent or support any worship. Neither Jefferson's bill nor the other could muster a majority, and for several years the legislature deadlocked.

Each year, however, support for an establishment grew. When a liberalized general assessment bill was introduced in 1784, omitting subscription to articles of faith and giving secular reasons for the support of religion, the Presbyterian clergy backed it. Madison angrily declared that they were "as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out." Only Madison's shrewd politicking delayed passage of the general assessment bill until the legislature had time to evaluate the state of public opinion. madison ' s memorial and remonstrance turned public opinion against the assessment; even the Presbyterian clergy now endorsed Jefferson's bill. Madison reintroduced it in late 1785, and it became law in early 1786, completing the separation of church and state in Virginia and providing a model for a nation.

Leonard W. Levy


Stokes, Anson Phelps 1950 Church and State in the United States. Vol. 1:366–394. New York: Harper & Row.

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Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786)

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Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786)