What’s most striking to me about the Virginia Statute is the part that reads: “…all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” Jefferson emphasized that the bill was meant to protect everyone, including as he later wrote, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This idea–that one’s religious identity should be neither an advantage nor a disadvantage under the law–seems to be as relevant today as it was then. The Statute was intended to create a free market of ideas, including religious ideas.Religion would thrive based not on government decisions but on what people believed and chose to support–the “voluntary principle.” The result was an explosion in religious ideas and denominations, and religious leaders were held responsible to their congregants rather than the government.Not only has the Supreme Court relied upon it to for 140 years to define religious freedom [since ], but it played a critical role in development of the First Amendment and in the way the states defined religious freedom.It was far better known in the nineteenth century when historians, students, newspaper editors and politicians regularly turned to the Statute to understand religious liberty.To listen to the Christian Right, which has been busy seeking religious exemptions from laws governing reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, one might think that armies of secularists are swarming like locusts over the land, seeking to snuff out the light of religious freedom and ultimately, of faith itself.Others starkly cast the Christian Right’s campaign as one pitting the religious freedom of some against the civil rights of others, thus effectively ceding the very idea of religious freedom to people whose commitment to the principle may be shaky at best.
The best modern example is laws against racial discrimination: While many people insisted that interracial dating or marriage violated their religion, the Supreme Court, in the 1983 case of , rightly refused to grant an exemption to anti-discrimination laws based on religion.
Some conservative ministers who had initially opposed separating church and state admitted that it was the best thing that ever happened to the church.
People sometimes assume that if you want to keep religion out of government and government out of religion you are against religion; Jefferson suffered the same attack.
The following year, Madison served as the principal (but certainly not the only) author of the Constitution, and in 1789, as the principal author of the First Amendment.
In 1991 Congress designated January 16 as Religious Freedom Day to celebrate enactment of the Virginia Statute, stipulating only that it be commemorated by a presidential proclamation.