January 16 is Religious Freedom Day. Why should you care? Because whoever you are, whatever you believe, wherever you are in the world, the words written by one man led to the freedom of expression you enjoy–or envy–today.
Virginia’s General Assembly enacted Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. It was one of the first declarations of human rights that are now cherished through most of the free world.
Whether or not you are religious or even American, chances are you value the right to think and speak your mind freely. In England at the time, the Church of England was the official religion and the king was its leader.
Many early settlers–most famously the Pilgrims but also other Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Quakers and others–came to the colonies to worship as they wished. In Virginia, citizens including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists petitioned the legislature for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
The result was the first law that gave American citizens that right. It later became a keystone of the First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that right to all citizens.
Next to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wanted to be remembered most for this declaration of human rights and for founding the University of Virginia.
Here is a transcript from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture:
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
Enacted by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786
I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment 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 his Almighty power to do…
II. 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
III. 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 act 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 as would be an infringement of natural right.
Read that last paragraph again. It says that we can make and revoke laws as we wish, but certain natural rights exist regardless of what we do. Those “unalienable rights” that Jefferson first mentioned in the Declaration of Independence are secured in the First Amendment to the Constitution a few years later.
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