Mr. Jefferson's defense of freedom of conscience
January 16 is an important day for freedom. It was on this day in 1786 that the Virginia General Assembly approved the Statute for Religious Freedom, a document guaranteeing freedom of conscience in the commonwealth, and a forerunner of the 1st Amendment.
It's author: Thomas Jefferson.
The Virginia Historical Society has this on the Statute's content, and its meaning:
I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment 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 was his Almighty power to do . . .
The second paragraph is the act itself, which states that no person can be compelled to attend any church or support it with his taxes. It says that an individual is free to worship as he pleases with no discrimination.
II. 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.
The third paragraph reflects Jefferson's belief in the people's right, through their elected assemblies, to change any law. Here, Jefferson states that this statute is not irrevocable because no law is (not even the Constitution). Future assemblies that choose to repeal or circumscribe the act do so at their own peril, because this is "an infringement of natural right." Thus, Jefferson articulates his philosophy of both natural right and the sovereignty of the people.
III. 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 act 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; 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 as would be an infringement of natural right.
The Statute for Religious Freedom was one of Jefferson's proudest accomplishments (along with writing the Declaration of Independence and founding of the University of Virginia). More than 200 years later, we are grateful that Mr. Jefferson took what was then a bold stance against both intolerance, and state domination of religion. In some ways, it still is a bold statement, particularly in a world where despotic theocrats wage war on their neighbors, and their own citizens, for not observing officially sanctioned religious views.