in the 1780's, Patrick Henry argued in favor or a state tax to fund churches
Source: US Senate, Patrick Henry
The Virginia Declaration of Rights established a clear separation between the authority of the state vs. the power of the individual regarding religion. In the Declaration of Rights adopted by the members on the convention on June 12, 1776, Virginia's revolutionary leaders specifically rejected the power asserted by the King of England to be Defender of the Faith, with authority to establish official religious dogma. Section 16 stated instead:1
The declaration had been drafted primarily by George Mason. When he finally arrived to join the debates, the president of the Fifth Virginia Convention, Edmund Pendleton, declared optimistically:2
Mason's first draft for the Fifth Virginia Convention had proposed only that "all Men shou'd enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion." However, 25-year old James Madison successfully argued that the draft should be revised beyond "toleration" which could be revoked by the legislature. While Thomas Jefferson was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Madison pushed for the declaration to be amended so it defined religious belief as a natural right, one which could not be directed by government.
George Mason endorsed the change in his draft. Jefferson consulted Mason's Declaration of Rights when preparing the Declaration of Independence in June, 1776. However, Jefferson included no mention of religion in the Declaration of Independence. The Articles of Confederation, approved by the Continental Congress and 1777 and finally ratified by the states in 1781, included only this mention of religion in Article III:3
even after adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, non-Anglican worship services were disrupted and preachers were harassed
Source: Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic - The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778
In 1779, the Anglican Church in Virginia reorganized as the Episcopal Church, independent from the Church of England. Thomas Jefferson's "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" was introduced; it was #82 in the list of 126 bills prepared by the Committee of Revisors who examined colonial laws to be updated after independence. Action on Jefferson's bill was postponed; it was not reintroduced again until 1785.
The 1779 General Assembly chose to stop mandating the payment of taxes to support Anglican vestries.4
The US Constitution was approved by a convention in 1787 without an overt statement regarding religious liberty. Failure to articulate clearly the rights retained by individuals and states threatened ratification of the new form of government. During the ratification debates in Virginia, James Madison promised to amend the document to make clear the constraints on the Federal government.
In the First Congress (1789-90), James Madison successfully led the effort to amend the US Constitution; he fulfilled the promises he had made in the Virginia ratification convention. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights still treats religious belief as a permanent natural right:
The Supreme Court is faced with the challenge of interpreting the scope of the First Amendment. What funding can be provided (perhaps via vouchers) to private schools with a religious affiliation, may the mayor put a Christmas tree in front of city hall, how much teachers can support/regulate prayer in public schools, whether a copy of the Ten Commandments can hang on the wall of courtrooms, can high school football games start with a prayer... the words written in Virginia 200 years ago are still essential to American culture today.
Anti-Catholic bias did not disappear from Virginia with passage of the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom." Nancy Astor, a native of Virginia and the first woman elected to serve in the English Parliament, expressed it when she said Hitler's Germany was entitled to rearm before World War II because it was "surrounded by Catholics."5
Jimmy Carter, in his 1988 campaign for president, campaigned openly as a Christian. The politicization of faith communities continued, but the Republican Party was far more successful than the Democrats. By 2019, 78% of people who identified as religious evangelicals were also Republicans, compared to just 17% who described themselves as Democrats. Between 1994-2019, the percentage of white Catholics who identified as Republicans climbed from 45% to 58%, and among Mormons the increase was 61% to 74%.
The political preferences of other religious groups favored Democrats. In 2019, 68% of Jews, 68% of Hispanic Catholics, and 84% of Black Catholics were allied with the Democratic Party.
Lawsuits related to religious freedom appeared regularly on the Supreme Court docket, with clearly-partisan support for different sides. Religious partisans on each side reacted differently in 2015 when the court legalized same-sex marriage, and in 2020 when it ruled that employment discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity violated laws banning discrimination based on sex.6
Virginia was the leader in establishing religious freedom over two centuries ago, but has also produced leaders that edged close to mixing the affairs of church and state. With the rise of the "Religious Right" in the 1980's, two Virginia ministers have been key players in Republican politics at a national level. Rev. Pat Robertson led the Christian Coalition from his base of operations in Virginia Beach, while Rev. Jerry Falwell led the Moral Majority from his base of operations in Lynchburg.
Rev. Robertson was the son of a former US Senator. He founded both the Christian Broadcasting Network, with its flagship show "The 700 Club," and Regent University in Virginia Beach. The university became a campaign stop for Republican but not Democratic candidates.
A producer for the 700 Club described Rev. Pat Robertson as "a politician who happens to be a minister," and commented about how the show gave listeners clear direction regarding the intersection of religious and political philsosophies:7
Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. allied Liberty University closely with President Trump and his election campaign efforts, rallying white Christian evangelicals in particular to support the president. Falwell created a purported "think tank," the Falkirk Center. It became a base for freelance media figures to claim an association with an academic institution when pushing their political agenda through a podcast, videos, and social media outreach.
Falwell was forced to resign as president of Liberty University in August 2020, after revelation of indiscrete personal behavior and allegations of sexual impropriety. The university then decided to let its contract with Charlie Kirk expire. The Falkirk Center, who name honored the partnership between a university president and a political activist, was renamed as the "Standing for Freedom Center."8