Earlier this session I wrote to you about my decision to advance measures in the Virginia General Assembly aimed at strengthening religious liberty and the right of conscience. The first of those initiatives, I am pleased to report, was passed by the House of Delegates last week with overwhelming bipartisan support. That legislation, House Bill 791, makes clear that Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom is today the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson authored the statute establishing religious freedom in Virginia, and as relating to his many significant accomplishments, considered it among his most important. The Commonwealth’s legislature passed it into law in 1786 and it has remained on the books ever since. It was reaffirmed in the Code of Virginia as an expression of the natural rights of man in 1919, and today, 230 years since its passing, remains relevant, particularly at this time when there is much confusion surrounding the lawful expression of religious liberty.
These matters are sometimes complicated. Most of the world fails to enjoy this liberty, and as the history of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in Virginia demonstrates, it was not reached easily in this country. But there can be little doubt that we have fared much better in recognizing it as a natural right. Indeed, as stated in my legislation, the right to religious liberty is unalienable.
In his statute, Jefferson supplies the bold rationale for this assertion. With clarity he begins with the proposition that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Jefferson observed that attempts to punish religious expression result in “habits of hypocrisy and meanness.” He strongly asserted that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” And in matters of great controversy, free people need not be anxious in the battle of ideas in that “truth is great and will prevail, if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.”
Jefferson’s reasoning influenced the approach to these matters in the nation at large and is a primary reason why we became a beacon of hope for the world. But today, there is reason for concern as these basic principles have been challenged by our federal government and by agencies in other states. We have witnessed attempts to punish businesses for refusing to comply with mandates, which violate company policies rooted in the religious conviction of its owners. In several places throughout the nation, state agencies have targeted individuals who hold to a biblical view of marriage. And it has been suggested, that when it comes to the free expression of religion, constitutional protections are limited to what people merely believe, yet not to how they actually live.
We Virginians know differently. Now that the House has done so, I hope the Senate will likewise affirm again in our law what Jefferson authored years ago: that no one should “suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”