Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

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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,

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. For purposes of analysis I have numbered the paragraphs.

Text of legislation[edit]


Jefferson used the legislation to require separation of church and state to ensure religious freedom would be protected. The legislation forbids the following infringements of religious freedom:

  • Judicial opinions restricting the faith of others because of supposition of ill tendency. (¶2, 9)
  • Taxpayer funding of opinions one doesn't believe in. (¶3)
  • Taxpayer funding of religious teachers one doesn't support. (¶4)
  • Requiring a certain religious opinion to run for public office. (¶6-7, 12)
  • Forcing people to attend religious worships, places, and ministries they don't want to attend. (¶12)
  • Causing people to suffer in any way because of their religious opinions. (¶12)


Jefferson's legislation consists of a series of logical arguments to support his argument that freedom of religion should exist:

  • God created the mind free and to restrict it results in hypocrisy and cruelty. Such restriction is 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." (¶1)
  • Legislators and rulers who restrict the faith of others are "fallible and uninspired men" who are impiously "setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible" and are of the same sort that "established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time." (¶2)
  • Forcing someone to fund opinions they don't believe is sinful and tyrannical, and even requiring them to fund a specific teacher of their own belief system removes from the ministry and pastor they most support the funds they should have the "comfortable liberty" to give. (¶3-4)
  • Our opinions on religion should have no more bearing upon our civil capacities to vote or run for office than our opinions on "physics or geometry." (¶5)
  • Preventing any citizen from running for public office because they aren't of X Christian denomination deprives them of their God-given rights and "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." (¶6-7)
  • That judges and legislators are equally to blame with clergymen who allow government to restrict the rights of others because of their religious beliefs, by laying the bait to do what is wrong. (¶8)
  • Allowing a judge to intrude into the field of opinion and restrict principles because of how wrong they seem is dangerous to religious liberty since they will of course make their opinions the law and punish differing opinions. (¶9)
  • Government officials have a responsibility to stand up against the wrong being done and interfere against these attacks on peace and good order. (¶10)
  • Truth will prevail and dispel error with nothing to fear from disagreement, so long as allowed "her natural weapons" of "free argument and debate." Errors are not dangerous so long as one is allowed to contradict them. (¶11)
  • All should have the freedom to believe on religion as they wish without their civil rights being affected. Such are the "natural rights of mankind" and any legislation passed to the contrary is "an infringement of natural right." (¶12)

Autobiographical mention[edit]

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

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[edit]

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,[9]


  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. "Transcription: Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786." Virginia Memory: Library of Virginia.
  8. Jefferson, Thomas (1821, January 6). "Autobiography."
  9. Gilbert, Kathleen (2012, February 20). "2,500 Religious Leaders, Every U.S. Bishop Oppose Obama Mandate." LifeSiteNews.