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The National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s landmark, “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” on January 16, 1786.
After numerous delays and revisions, as well as nine years of political debate, James Madison successfully convinced the Virginia legislature to pass Jefferson’s bill, which Governor Patrick Henry signed into law. As revised by the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom reinforced the shared belief that freedom of religion was both an inalienable right and a civil right. The role of a civil government, led by limited and fallible citizens, is to guarantee equality in access to public office and interfere with religion only when overt acts threaten peace and good order.
Even in this early documents, Virginia distinguished between the freedom to believe and the freedom to act on religious beliefs. A civil authority can regulate some religiously motivated behavior, but the authority must recognize its own limitations.
As noted below, Jefferson warned civil magistrates against making their own opinions the test for regulating religious behavior because, in doing so, the law would depend on their approval or condemnation of religions that conformed with or contradicted their own. The remedy was, therefore, to neither punish, burden, nor deprive legal standing to any citizen because of their religious beliefs, nor was it to compel citizens to frequent or support religion. Specific to the discussion of the rights of agents of the state, Jefferson’s bill, as amended, made clear that one’s religious beliefs do not “diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
The last segment of the bill recognized the limitations of their own legislative actions and warns future agents that by revoking this particular law, they would infringe on the ordained, natural right to citizens’ free exercise of religion. This politically charged conclusion gives us today an indication of the importance that these framers gave to religious liberty.
WELL aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint:
WE the General Assembly of Virginia do enact 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
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 act11 irrevocable would be of no effect in law; 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 will be an infringement of natural right.