Statute for Religious Freedom
On January 16, 1786 the General Assembly adopted the Statute for
Religious Freedom, which states that no Virginians will face prosecution for their religious beliefs. Considered
today to be one of the most influential documents in American history, it laid the foundation for the official
acceptance of the principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state that later were
enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Thomas Jefferson composed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom the year after he wrote the Declaration
of Independence. He first introduced it in the General Assembly while governor in 1779, and after seven years,
with the assistance of James Madison, the bill became law. Jefferson later stated that, of all his political battles,
his fight for the Statute was the hardest to win.
In three eloquent paragraphs, Jefferson outlines his proposals and philosophy. In the preamble he defends
religious and intellectual freedom and declares that religion and government are separate spheres. In the next
clause he states that no one will be forced to support any specific church and that all will be free to exercise
their religious beliefs. He concludes by pronouncing that these religious principles are fundamental and a natural right.
Jefferson considered the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as one of his three greatest achievements, ranking it
with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia. According to the
Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission, which was created by a resolution adopted by the
General Assembly in its 1950 session, "Virginia was the first sovereign commonwealth, state, or nation in all
the world to proclaim by law entire freedom of religious belief or unbelief."
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