New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
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In 1786 the legislature of this great state passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, (< link opens new window) which made a monumental contribution to the cause of religious liberty within the Commonwealth and soon inspired the rest of the American states to follow. The statute rejected previous coercive practices of imposing specific creeds upon the people, exacting religious tests for office, compelling church attendance, and collecting taxes to support denominations within the Christian faith. By these ways and means the state of Virginia rejected its previous policy of guaranteeing a place of privilege to a specific religious profession, which would insure its place among the people in the future. The statute rejected a priori commitments to specific religious ideologies, but in doing so it never intended to place a stricture upon the valuable participation of religious people and their ideas in shaping the civil government and its policies a posteriori. In fact, the statute based its concept of freedom upon a religious doctrine or the “plan of the Holy author of our religion” to create human beings with a free mind and give them this liberty as a natural right. By deferring to the deity, it conceived of human freedom as finding its surest foundation within a religious matrix.

The new statute proceeds with a strong commitment to its predecessor, but finds it necessary to update the act by offering additional provisions, which address the present concerns of the people. The context of the current statute relates to the compelling need, felt by the people, to withstand the secular forces of modern society that would attack the rightful place of religion in society and cleanse the public forum of its ideas, symbols, and people. These forces have attempted to create an unfair hegemony for their secular ideology, using the increasing size and power of the state to promote their agenda and marginate religion more and more to the fringes of society. These forces pretend that a secular and god-less government is neutral in its treatment of religion, leaving and limiting the realm of pious devotion to private matters, but the results of this policy are far from neutral. Today people recognize that inclusion is the hallmark of a just society, and any policy that excludes and segregates a certain kind of people or ideas marginates them to the role of second class citizenship. Any policy that fails to include religion as an important aspect of government sentences its ideas to relative insignificance and creates a secular society de facto through the power of the state. Such a policy belies the importance of religion in providing a solid foundation for our moral view of life and the importance of religious people, who brought the vision of liberty, equality, and democracy to these shores.

Martin Luther King preaching his political / religious message.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That the state of Virginia welcomes the participation of religion and its people within the public square and provides a space for its just representation, as it does for any other opinion or group. The state finds it appropriate to represent the faith of the people by affording them access to public institutions and inviting them to interpret their faith and provide spiritual and moral guidance in determining its laws and actions. It also finds it appropriate to represent the faith of the people through public symbols and ceremonies, acknowledging the basic views of the people as they change over time, respecting the rights of minority views to dissent or abstain, and recognizing the serious limitations placed upon the government to impose any ideology on a free society.

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©2008 The New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom