Friday, January 16, 2015

Writing a Law For Freedom

Thomas Jefferson is renowned for being the author of the Declaration of Independence. But, this was only one of Jefferson’s many, many accomplishments. It is interesting to note that, per his instructions, Jefferson’s grave is marked only with the three accomplishments of which he was most proud: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Shortly after he returned from the Continental Congress in 1776, Jefferson drafted a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Filled with the zeal of the impending revolution, Jefferson wanted to bring the ideals of the Declaration of Independence to Virginia. Alas, not everyone in the Virginia General Assembly shared his zeal. The members consisted of different factions, many of whom had their own agendas concerning religion.

When Jefferson first introduced the bill to the Assembly in 1779, it failed to gain a majority of the votes and the topic was not reintroduced until after the conclusion of the American Revolution (1781). In 1784, when the subject of religion next came up in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson was in France. The legislature came close to passing “A Bill for Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” but James Madison pushed for a vote delay. Madison reintroduced Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. With some revision, it passed as  the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.

The text did not point to any one particular religious group, but rather disassociated religion from all questions of government. For instance, within the Statute it states: “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

Bibliographic note: Peterson, M. (1994, December 1). Jefferson and Religious Freedom. Retrieved January 13, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96oct/obrien/peterson.htm

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