“I flatter myself that with this statute we have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
So wrote an overly optimistic James Madison to his good friend Thomas Jefferson in January 1786.
The object of Madison’s high hopes was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted by the Virginia Assembly on Jan. 16, 1786 – nearly 10 years after it was first written and proposed by Jefferson.
Today, more than 200 years later, few Americans know what the statute says or why it’s one of the most important documents in American history. Fewer still will pause this Jan. 16 to celebrate Religious Freedom Day, proclaimed each year by the president of the United States.
All that should begin to change in January 2007. That’s when the First Freedom Center is scheduled to open its doors on the very site where Jefferson’s bill was adopted in Richmond, Va., in 1786.
The organization building the center – the Council for America’s First Freedom – promises to open “the premier religious-freedom educational institution in the United States – indeed, the world – championing the cause of religious freedom for all humankind.”
Groundbreaking for the center is still a year away, but the council isn’t waiting for the building to begin promoting Jefferson’s vision of religious liberty. Educational programs are already under way, and every January the council presents “First Freedom Awards,” recognizing individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the cause of religious freedom.
This year Alberto de la Hera, of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, is being honored for his extraordinary efforts to expand religious freedom in Spain. Author Garry Wills receives the national award for his influential writings about religious liberty in America. And Presbyterian minister Robert Bluford is recognized for his work to preserve the meeting house of Samuel Davies and the Presbyterians – key supporters of Jefferson and Madison in the battle for religious freedom in Virginia.
The council boldly describes the future site of the First Freedom Center as “the birthplace of religious liberty.” While folks in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania – where Roger Williams and William Penn founded earlier experiments in religious freedom – might object, a strong case can be made for the passage of Jefferson’s bill as the defining moment for religious freedom in America.
Why Virginia? Because by passing the statute, the Virginia Assembly disestablished an established church – and simultaneously prohibited any future “establishments.” For the first time in history, church and state were fully separated by law.
Jefferson and Madison fought hard for this separation because they were convinced that state involvement in religion had been a leading cause of repression and coercion throughout history. When Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777, heresy was a capital offense, Roman Catholics were excluded from civil office, and free thinkers and Unitarians were subject to be declared unfit and even have their children taken away from them.
Although most of these laws were rarely enforced, their existence was a reminder of what was possible when state and religion were joined. Madison saw the dangers firsthand when, as a young man, he witnessed the imprisonment of Baptist ministers in western Virginia for doing nothing more than preaching their beliefs. “That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some,” he wrote to William Bradford. “[P]ray for liberty of conscience.”
Passage of the Virginia Statute was a great victory for “no establishment” as a core principle of religious freedom. “It is honorable for us,” Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris, “to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”
Three years later, James Madison ensured that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would open with the most important 16 words in the history of religious liberty:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”