Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

This DVD player delivers freedom FROM religion

Thomas Jefferson was probably the biggest proponent of religious liberty among the nation’s founders. Near the end of his life, he instructed that three of his accomplishments be listed in his epitaph:

  • Writing of the Declaration of Independence
  • Founding of the University of Virginia
  • Co-writing (with James Madison) the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Notice anything missing? How about being the third President of the United States! That’s quite an accomplishment. The fact that it’s missing from the list shows the importance Jefferson placed on the items that are included.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States were based largely upon the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. We can, therefore, look at the Virginia Statute for insight into the First Amendment.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the statute:

The 793-word statute is divided into three sections.

In Section 1, Jefferson argues that the concept of compulsory religion is wrong for the following reasons:

  • The imposition of anything on a human mind, which God made to be free, is hypocritical and wrong.
  • …God never coerced anyone to follow him, and the imposition of a religion by government officials is impious.
  • The coercion of a person to make contributions—especially monetary—to a religion he doesn’t support is tyrannical and creates favoritism among ministers.
  • Government involvement in matters tends to end in the restraint of religion.
  • Civil rights do not depend on religious beliefs….

You’ve probably heard many of us say that “Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion”. In fact, we’ve said it enough that some fundies are sick of hearing it. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Freedom of religion does not include freedom from religion”. That’s similar to the way the Christians like to make a Jesus fish eating a Darwin fish. They think they’re so clever!

As you can see by the first few items in that list, freedom from religion is clearly one of the intentions of the Virginia Statute and (by extension) the First Amendment.

Fundies would be well advised to read the fourth bullet item carefully. I don’t know why that concept is so alien to them. History has borne it out repeatedly.

Finally, look at that last bullet item. The actual text from the Statute is:

…that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…

One fundie argument I hear a lot is that God has granted us these rights. No. Show me where in the Bible that the Bill of Rights, or anything like it, is laid out. The only thing approaching a Bill of Rights is the Ten Commandments. That isn’t a Bill of Rights for humans; it’s a Bill of Rights for God! It’s what he gets out of the deal! What do the people get?

We have granted these rights to ourselves. We got together and determined what the basic human rights are. Freedom of (and from) religion is one of those.

Sections 2 and 3 are fairly short, so we can look at them in their entirety. The text is written in that tortured 18th Century bureaucratic prose. I’m going to separate Section 2 into bullet items, just for ease of comprehension:

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.

That first bullet item seems extremely clear to me. That means no prayer in the public schools. No form of creationism taught in the schools. No prayers at high school football games or graduation ceremonies. No private-school vouchers. No Ten Commandments hanging in courthouses. No “faith-based initiatives”. No “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Section 3 begins:

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 acts 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;…

That’s a very long-winded way of saying that they can’t stop future assemblies from mucking up this document; however, they would like to make the following very clear:

…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 act shall be an infringement of natural right.

That’s an interesting statement. I don’t remember anything comparable in our own Constitution. They’re making it clear to succeeding generations that if they tamper with the rights specified here, they are going against the very principles that their state was founded upon. It’s a warning to be very sure of what you are doing. Rights should not be surrendered lightly.

In fact, that is one of the things I like about the Virginia Statute. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is only 45 words long, and it covers:

  • Establishment of religion
  • Free exercise of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom to assemble
  • Right to petition for redress of grievances

That’s a lot, and it’s only 45 words! That’s why we’re always fighting over what that amendment means. It’s too vague. What exactly is an “establishment of religion”? What exactly is a restriction on the press?

The Virginia Statute goes into great detail in spelling out what it means and the rationale behind it. If only our Constitution were as detailed. I mean, come on! What the hell does this mean:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Are they saying that the right to bear arms is dependent on the need for a militia? Or are they merely saying that a militia is one of the benefits of the right to bear arms? You can read it either way, to completely opposite conclusions! If the Second Amendment had been as verbose as the Virginia Statute, we wouldn’t be arguing over this.

Fortunately for us, the religion clauses of the First Amendment were based on the Virginia Statute. At least for this one amendment, we have the luxury of seeing what the Founders meant when they wrote what they did.


Section 1 of the Virginia Statute has some good stuff in it. If you fancy yourself a Constitutional scholar, it’s worth reading the whole thing, which I’ve reproduced below. The rest of you can run along now.

I’ve broken it into bullet items at each semi-colon, for your comprehension pleasure.

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free;

  • that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments 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 it was in his Almighty power to do;
  • that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time;
  • that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical;
  • that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;
  • that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry;
  • that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right;
  • that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that 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;
  • that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;
  • that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;
  • that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;
  • and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

7 Responses to “Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom”

  1. Parrotlover77 Says:

    I find it interesting that Jefferson used the pronoun “he” everywhere until the very end, when referring to “truth” which he then assigns the pronoun “she” to. What is the significance of that?

    Also intersting is how he simultaneously intertwines the glory/power of “God” with verbiage that also diminishes that god’s role in government. He was able to straddle the fence perfectly here, appeasing the zealots and the humanists.

    The wording is perfect. He is telling the religious here that not only do you not want to promote your god in government, but that your religion is actually better off when you don’t! And to top it off, there’s that beautiful part in section 3 warning future generations if they decide to try to move towards theocracy again.

    I can’t think of a modern legislator that is that amazingly clever with regard to civil rights.

  2. Shannon M. Singleton Says:

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Jefferson would scoff at the state of our current union…

  3. Troy Says:

    This is a great posting. We owe Jefferson much. What’s more he was way ahead of his time. For those who believe rights come from Almighty God they should consider that the first words of the constitution are “We the People” I also like the notion of a “More perfect union”, religious utopias tend to consider themselves perfect from the get go and that is where they get into trouble.

  4. Chuck Says:

    Yeah…kind of regretting that he took a more Christian tone in the Declaration…cuz this is just fuckin’ brilliant.

    I wish people would pay more attention to the bullet point about not denying someone office based on their religion…*cough* fundies! *cough*

    It’s sad to see that the people who govern us have only gotten exponentially stupider over the past 200 years. We went from a truly free thinker, one who could maintain intelligence while managing the rabidly religious, to a dumbass who thinks rescinding habeas corpus is important for protecting our citizens against brown people.

  5. Paradox Says:

    Great post! It makes me proud to be a direct descendant of Jefferson. His ideas about religious freedom are right on, and I really don’t see why some people reject them. They seem to be perfectly reasonable to me. You do your thing, I’ll do mine.

  6. Sharley Says:

    Parrotlover — I think he used ‘she’ at the end because Truth, like Justice, was often personified as female.

    This really is awesome. It’s something every Fundie should be made to read. (Also, as a random aside, I think my favorite of all the ‘fish’ decals I’ve seen is one that said N’ CHIPS in the middle.)

  7. LadyRavana Says:



    Jefferson was made of AWESOME and WIN!

    *sigh* If only this would be implemented in our main constitution…would be nice.
    And while we’re at it, please, let us legalize gay marriage (as in, let it be protected WITHIN the constitution) so that we can FINALLY tell fundies to STFU, plzkthx. :p