Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786
The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, commonly known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which the Virginia General Assembly passed on January 16, 1786, is one of the most important laws that the assembly ever adopted. Its passage concluded a ten-year campaign in Virginia to disestablish the Church of England, which had been the official state church of the colony since the first English settlers arrived in 1607. Baptists led the campaign, joined by Presbyterians and others during the American Revolution, which over time became a push to provide full freedom of religious belief and practice to all Virginians, including Catholics, Jews, and other people who were not Protestant Christians. Under the English Act of Toleration, adopted in 1689, Protestants who were not members of the Church of England enjoyed some limited religious liberty, but in Virginia they were required to pay taxes to support the clergymen of the Church of England, and their marriage ceremonies had to be performed by Church of England ministers. Thomas Jefferson's eloquent statement of the principles of separation of church and state and of complete religious freedom was originally drafted in 1777 as the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Although it was introduced in the General Assembly on June 12, 1779, it did not pass. James Madison, without whom it probably would never have been enacted, engineered its passage in the General Assembly in 1786 and thus shared with the state's dissenters the credit for detaching the church from the state in Virginia.
The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, as adopted after being amended in the General Assembly, opens with an eloquent vindication of religious and intellectual freedom and closes with specific guarantees of religious liberty and belief. The Virginia law was one of the sources that Congress drew on when drafting the Bill of Rights in 1789, which granted the free exercise of religion and prohibited Congress from abridging the freedom of religion. Its guarantees became part of the second Virginia Constitution that was adopted in 1830.
1. What does disestablish mean in the context of this act?
2. Was it fair for members of other denominations to pay taxes in support of the Church of England?
1. Which amendment to the United States Constitution is similar to the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom? How are the rights described in the U.S. Constitution different from the rights guaranteed by the Virginia act?
Thomas E. Buckley, S.J. Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776–1787. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977.
Peterson, Merrill D. and Robert C. Vaughn, eds. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1988.