Jefferson's Religious Freedom Statute: Setting the Groundwork for the Separation of Church and State

The Jefferson Memorial monument is seen with the statue of Thomas Jefferson in the center, and the White House to the rear on
The Jefferson Memorial monument is seen with the statue of Thomas Jefferson in the center, and the White House to the rear on February 12, 2010 in Washington, DC. AFP Photo/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Jan. 16 is designated "Religious Freedom Day," commemorating the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia Assembly 226 years ago, the document formed the intellectual foundation and political foreshadowing for the First Amendment principles of religious liberty throughout the United States.

Religious liberty is often called our "first freedom," both because it is the first right ensured in the Bill of Rights and a widespread theological conviction that religious liberty is a gift from God.

The First Amendment has two religion clauses which protect that religious liberty, but by different means. The Establishment Clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") keeps government from advancing or privileging any religion or religion in general. The second clause, the Free Exercise Clause ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), keeps government from interfering with religious practice absent some paramount governmental interest such as peace, safety, or public health and welfare.

Jefferson's statute disestablished the Anglican Church in Virginia and served as a harbinger of the Establishment Clause when it provides: "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." It also foreshadowed the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause when it says: "no man shall be ... 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 ... their opinions in matters of Religion..." Jefferson's statute goes on to honor the "holy author of our religion" and acknowledges the "natural rights of mankind."

Historians tell us that religion in this country was at a low ebb between 1750 and 1790 -- at least when measured by church attendance (estimated to have been about 17 percent). After Jefferson's bill was adopted in Virginia and the Bill of Rights ratified by the entire country, weekly church attendance increased over the years. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, 36 percent of the United States general public attends worship services at least once a week, and only 16 percent of Americans say religion is not important in their life.

Some argue that the United States has become less religious over the years. Instead, I think we have become more religiously diverse and fluid. The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a "secular" government in the sense that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.

A secular government does not mean it is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in the public square and even some government venues is commonplace. Examples abound. One need only to look at Tuesday's planned Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. The president, vice president, dignitaries and Americans of diverse faiths will gather to celebrate the inauguration through prayer, readings and musical performances. And at the inauguration itself, an invocation and benediction will be offered. That doesn't sound like religion is getting short shrift or that the public square is naked. Actually, it is dressed to the nines.

Yes, our culture can be crude and some people are indifferent or hostile to religion. But the answer is not to malign the separation of church and state, which would do away with religious freedom and give government the job of promoting religion. Jefferson's radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance. It is for us -- people of faith and religious institutions, like the church -- to take up the task of making our religion winsome to the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.

J. Brent Walker is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.