Howard: Jefferson’s Statute shared a compelling vision of religious freedom - Richmond Times-Dispatch: Their Opinion

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Howard: Jefferson’s Statute shared a compelling vision of religious freedom

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Posted: Monday, December 10, 2012 12:00 am

Drafted in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted in 1786. It declares that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and it condemns the “impious presumption” of legislators and rulers who had “assumed dominion over the faith of others.” Jefferson was understandably upbeat in his assessment of his handiwork: “It is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.”

Virginia’s Statute foreshadowed the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the amendment has a single phrase for most rights (speech, press, assembly, petition), it has two religion clauses. One protects the free exercise of religion, the other bans laws respecting an establishment of religion. This duality is no accident. The amendment’s framers recognized, as Virginians had done, that free exercise and separation of government and religion are twin pillars. They enlarge religious liberty in a way that neither principle, standing by itself, would do.

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