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

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

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 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

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.

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

The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defence, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.

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

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:

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."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

...guiding them becomes an easy task — what we gave them was Republican Party politics. We had an explanation for all their fears — the lack of personal responsibility, big government, people trying to take from you what really belongs to you, self-responsibility, self-responsibility, self-responsibility. All those things worked very well with the type of Christianity we were preaching.

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

1776 Constitution of Virginia

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. "The Virginia Declaration of Rights - First Draft," Gunston Hall,; "The Virginia Declaration of Rights - Ratified Version," Gunston Hall,; "Virginia Declaration of Rights - June 12, 1776," Avalon Project, Yale Law School,; "George Mason and the American Revolution," Gunston Hall, (last checked March 14, 2021)
2. "The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776," Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia, (last checked January 21, 2014)
3. "Articles of Confederation (1777)," National Archives, (last checked March 23, 2021)
4. "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 18 June 1779," Founders Online, National Archives,; "Catalogue of Bills Prepared by the Committee of Revisors, 1–5 June 1779," Founders Online, National Archives, (last checked March 23, 2021)
5. "Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor," New World Encyclopedia,,_Viscountess_Astor; Fox, James, Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, pp. 426-7, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000 (last checked June 8, 2019)
6. "In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race And Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines," Pew Research Center, June 2, 2020,; "Christian conservatives rattled after Supreme Court rules against LGBT discrimination," Washington Post, June 15, 2020, (last checked March 23, 2021)
7. "Former 700 Club producer: 'I knew where the line was. But that didn’t stop us'," Vox, August 26, 2017, (last checked March 23, 2021)
8. "'They All Got Careless': How Falwell Kept His Grip on Liberty Amid Sexual 'Games,' Self-Dealing," Politico, November 1, 2020,; "Conservative Activist Charlie Kirk Leaves Liberty University Think Tank," New York Times, March 16, 2021, (last checked March 23, 2021)

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