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Lift your lamp beside the golden door, Break not the golden rule, avoid well the golden calf, know; not all that glitters is gold, and laissez faire et laissez passer [let do and let pass] but as a shining sentinel, hesitate not to ring the bell, defend the gates, and man the wall

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Committee of Revisor's Bill No.s 82 and 84

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom [

Bill No. 82] 
was drafted in 1777[1] by Thomas Jefferson in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 1786, theVirginia General Assembly enacted the statute into the state's law. (Source Links 1 and 2)

"A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," in the proposed revision of Virginia laws reported by the appointed Committee of Revisors (which included Thomas Jefferson) in 1779. The bill was eventually adopted in 1785. There is no extant original manuscript of the bill in Jefferson's hand. The text of the act as adopted is as follows:

Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy 

[Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy] 
Text as adopted is in William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large (Richmond, Va.: Pleasants, 1810-1823), XII:84-6. An extensive editorial note in PTJ explains some slight differences in their transcription and the text as adopted, and discusses the process of adoption and various printings of the text.

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 in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous falacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact 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 opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

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 acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act 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 act will be an infringement of natural right.

A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers. [Bill No. 84] (Source Link)

From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson was rewriting the laws of Virginia. He wanted Virginia law to be stripped of its colonial and monarchical qualities. He wanted the law to reflect republican principles. Jefferson was so committed to this effort that he turned down a mission to France in 1776 in order to do it.
Jefferson was rewriting the laws of Virginia as a member of the "Committee of Revisors." This committee was formed by the Virginia House and Senate late in 1776. Various men were approved to serve on the Committee of Revisors such as George Mason. However, for various reasons, the committee membership ended up with Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Pendleton and George Wythe. Jefferson was chairman.

The committee met for the first time in Fredericksburg in January 1777. On June 18, 1779, the committee concluded its work. The committee recommended 126 bills for the Virginia House and Senate to pass. Some of the bills had been submitted earlier for consideration. Without question, the most famous bill on the list of 126 bills was Bill No. 82. This was Jefferson’s historic "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom." The U.S. Supreme Court has said that they look to this bill to find the meaning of the First Amendment. However on this list of 126 bills, there was one bill that directly related to the Ten Commandments. This was Bill No. 84. Jefferson personally wrote Bills No. 82 and 84. Bill No. 84 was titled: "A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers." In this bill, Jefferson addressed three subjects. First, that no "officer, for any civil cause, shall arrest any minister of the gospel . . . while such minister shall be publicly preaching or performing religious worship in any church . . ." Second, ". . . if any person shall of purpose, maliciously, or contemptuously, disquiet or disturb any congregation assembled . . . or misuse any such minister being there . . . " that person shall remain in prison until the next court be held and if convicted be fined or imprisoned. Finally, "If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling . . . except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity . . . or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offense . . . " This punishment was extended to masters who worked their slaves on Sunday as well. In this bill, Jefferson is proposing that the government of Virginia fine anyone who violated the Sabbath. The Sabbath of course concerns the Fourth Commandment in the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath honors God as the Creator. Logic and reason suggest that if someone would propose a state law to protect the Fourth Commandment, then it is unlikely he or she would oppose the display of the Fourth Commandment on public property. In my opinion, Bill No. 84 settles it. Jefferson would not oppose the display of the Ten Commandments on state public property. He would not consider it to be a violation of the separation of church and state.



1 comment:

  1. When discussing separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish between the "public square" and "government" and distinguish "individual" from "government" speech on religion. You are correct to note that the principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state--as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx