Thomas Jefferson was a man of many remarkable achievements. Drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State, and President cover just a few. But within this impressive list, there were only three things for which he most hoped to be remembered—legacies that were so important to him he had them etched into his gravestone. “Because by these,” he wrote, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”
Two of these are probably unsurprising to most modern-day Americans: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence” and “Father of the University of Virginia.” The third accomplishment that meant so much to Jefferson, however, is rarely discussed: “Author … of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom.”
The Virginia Statute for religious freedom was passed by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786. Soon after, it became the model for the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
At the time Virginia, like most of the original American colonies, was not welcoming of religious diversity. Most of the colonies had inherited a tradition of state-imposed churches. In Virginia, citizens who were not members of the Anglican Church could not hold public office, and religious leaders who dissented were required to notify the government and obtain a license before they could preach. The government held complete power over the amount and degree of religious toleration for dissenters.
Jefferson’s statute changed the status quo, acknowledging that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” but 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.”
By recognizing religious freedom as a natural right, his legislation protected the rights of citizens to freely profess and maintain their religious beliefs so “that no man shall … 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.”
Jefferson understood that religious freedom is a fundamental human right that is essential to a free society, and therefore all of us, whether religious or nonreligious, have a stake in ensuring its protection. Respecting religious freedom is about protecting a diversity of beliefs so that all of them may be publically expressed and practiced.
For over twenty years, the President has declared January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day, calling on Americans to observe that day “with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty, and show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.”
We are leading our colleagues in the House and Senate in introducing a resolution affirming the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right that is essential to a free society. This resolution draws on past findings of Congress and Religious Freedom Day Presidential Proclamations to remind us of our nation’s long commitment to protecting religious freedom for people of all faiths, both at home and around the world.
Today, we not only have an opportunity to honor Jefferson’s impressive legacy, but also an invitation to help preserve the fundamental human rights to which he devoted his life work.
• Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) serves on the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Energy and Natural Resources, and Commerce; Representative J. Randy Forbes is a Republican representing Virginia’s 4th Congressional district.