Charles Sumner, a church-state separation activist in Tennessee wrote the following for posting on Blogs.
On the 230th anniversary of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, it is important for today's generations to understand the tremendous change this measure represented to world history. Until the American experiment, there had never been a complete separation between the institutions of religion and government. Passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786, this statute is regarded by historians as the precursor of the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1776, Virginia took a step toward disestablishing the Anglican Church. The leading figure in that monumental change was an Anglican, George Mason. But Virginia did not stop collecting taxes for the support of the Anglican (soon to be Episcopal) Church at that time. An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779 but not acted upon until 1785, when Jefferson was in France. At that time the great orator and patriot, Patrick Henry, introduced a general assessment bill that would continue the tax for religion but alter its distribution.
At the time of the American Revolution there were established religions in nine of the 13 colonies, following the European pattern. It meant that one religious denomination was favored. It often meant you were taxed for someone else's religion. That became apparent to Patrick Henry because the church that had received the money no longer was the predominant religion in Virginia. He proposed that the tax be altered to go to some other denominations as well. He called it a tax for "teachers of the Christian religion."
Jefferson's desire was to have no tax for religion, but support for Henry's bill seemed strong. So James Madison and other supporters of Jefferson's plan managed to delay action while they let the citizens know of the situation. Madison, Mason and others circulated petitions.
Madison's argument was made in the now famous "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." This document stated, "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"
The wide circulation of this among the citizenry had the desired effect; the tax for religion failed. And in 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom passed. It was one of the three items Thomas Jefferson wanted memorialized on his tombstone. It might seem odd, but president of the United States was not one of the three.
"No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry, whatever, 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," the statute said.
It was Madison, author of the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," who was also the primary architect of the First Amendment and is regarded as the Father of the Constitution. That gives you a clue as to the true significance of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
It might also let you know how Madison and Jefferson would regard a Tennessee bill that would take tax money from the public schools and channel it to private schools, most of which are religious schools.
Celebrate Religious Freedom Day by reading these documents and their history. Celebrate that in the United States, with its separation of church and state, we have vibrant religions existing not because they are supported by the state but because people believe in their religion's worth.
CHARLES SUMNER, President-Emeritus, Nashville Chapter
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
PO Box 210005, Nashville TN 37221
Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason (FredCor) will host Professor Emile Lester on January 10, 2016 as the speaker for the Religious Freedom Celebration.
- January 10 · 2:30 PM