By NEMS Daily Journal
All Americans should remember during Memorial Day weekend, marked by many solemn ceremonies in which religious ritual will be involved, that those who made the ultimate sacrifice died defending, in part, religious freedom.
Thomas Jefferson was its great champion in early America, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786, which he authored, provided the spirit by which the freedom of religion is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The Virginia statute’s words ring with Jefferson’s iconic eloquence – and provide ideas for reflection in this notable national holiday time.
At the beginning of the Revolution in 1776, nine of the thirteen colonies officially supported one particular religion, what we would call an established church. Religious fervor itself helped temper the official ties so that by 1787 only Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut maintained established religions, including forms of taxation to support them.
Jefferson led the fight for religious freedom in Virginia, which angered the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, the established church in Virginia at the time. After a long and bitter debate, Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom passed the legislature. Jefferson said, in context, there was now “freedom for the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination.”
When the First Amendment to the Constitution went into effect in 1791, Jefferson’s principle of separation of church and state became the law of the land.
The substance of the Virginia act is straightforward:
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, 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 opinion 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, [has] no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with powers equal to her own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet, as 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 hereafter be passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural rights.”
In the course of American history all the people cited in Jefferson’s words, “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammedan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination,” have fought side-by-side to preserve religious freedom and all the others enshrined in our history and the Constitution.
The First Amendment is even briefer than the Virginia statute:
“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.”
Memorial Day measures the cost.