varied religious people prayingChapter 2:  A “Wall of Separation”

“These are times that try men’s souls.” That famous statement was first uttered by Thomas Paine (1737-1809). As a young man, Paine emigrated from London, England to Phildelphia in 1774. He had not been successful in career choices in London, but in Philadelphia he found his niche as a journalist. As colonists were increasingly clamoring for religious and civil freedom from English rule, Paine also became a political activist. He got into the fray by writing a pamphlet he titled Common Sense, which urged people to free themselves from the oppression of kings. Thousands of copies were published and circulated throughout the colonies. Some historians contend that publication of Paine’s pamphlet was one of the most important events leading to the colonists’ Continental Congress declaring independence from English rule in 1776.

Before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, each of the soon-to-be independent states began to develop written constitutions, a legal framework for the way each government would function. Virginia was the first state to establish a constitution, which included a declaration of rights, stating:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

Patrick Henry (1736–1799), who was well known for his impassioned battle cry before independence (“give me liberty or give me death”), had played a major role in framing the state’s constitution. A legislator and Virginia’s first governor, Henry was an eloquent speaker. He argued in favor of a Bill of Rights as part of the U.S. Constitution, which would provide for the free exercise of religion. However, he also sponsored a proposal for a law allowing tax funds to be used for supporting all Christian churches. Henry believed that Christianity was necessary for high moral standards and would generally benefit the social structure of the state.

Thomas Jefferson (1742-1826), who wrote the Declaration of Independence and later became the third U.S. president, did not agree with tax support for a specific religion. In opposition to Henry, he proposed a Virginia law called the Statue for Religious Freedom, which was designed to completely separate state government and religion. The bill was introduced in 1779 and over the next seven years, legislators and citizens presented pro and con arguments regarding the decree. One of the most influential publications of that time was the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments by Jefferson’s friend James Madison (1751-1836). In this lengthy document of 1785, Madison argued against tax support for religion. He wrote in part:

The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him….

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?…. Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.

Madison’s Memorial also reasoned that if the state supported Christianity in general, then it could at some time set up a particular denomination or sect as the state religion. Doing that, he argued, would in turn destroy harmony among the varied religious groups. Restricting religious freedom would endanger other liberties, such as freedom of speech and the press. Largely because of Madison’s arguments, the Virginia legislature passed the Jefferson Statute in 1786. Virginia became the first state to legally declare that the affairs of government and religion should be separate. The concepts that produced the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom were also influential in shaping the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

(To be continued)


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