The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment

in the 1780's, Patrick Henry argued in favor or a state tax to fund churches
in the 1780's, Patrick Henry argued in favor or a state tax to fund churches
Source: US Senate, Patrick Henry

In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights established a clear separation between the authority of the state vs. religious authority. 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, stating in Section 16:1

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed 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.

The declaration was 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

The Political Cooks are busy preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the Ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it's [sic] end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals.

However, 25-year old James Madison did not consider Mason's draft to be adequate, and he successfully led the effort to change Mason's initial language on religious freedom.

even after adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, non-Anglican worship services were disrupted and preachers were harassed
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

The US Constitution was ratified without an overt statement regarding religious liberty - but in the First Congress, James Madison led the effort to amend the document to fulfill promises made in the Virginia ratification convention. Today, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights still says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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."3

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.

Anglicans/Episcopalians in Virginia

Catholics in Virginia

George Washington and Religion

Parson Waugh's Tumult

Quakers in Virginia

Religious Toleration/Intolerance in Colonial Virginia



1. "Virginia Declaration of Rights - June 12, 1776," Avalon Project, Yale Law School, (last checked January 21, 2014)
2. "The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776," Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia, (last checked January 21, 2014)
3. "Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor," New World Encyclopedia,,_Viscountess_Astor (last checked June 8, 2019)

Religion in Virginia
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