Establishing Religious Freedom
The significance of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedomgoes far beyond the borders of the Old Dominion. Its influence ultimately extended to the SupremeCourt's interpretation of the separation of church and state. In his latest book, ThomasBuckley tells the story of the statute, beginning with its background in the struggles of thecolonial dissenters against an oppressive Church of England. When the Revolution forced the issue ofreligious liberty, Thomas Jefferson drafted his statute and James Madison guided its passage throughthe state legislature. Displacing an established church by instituting religious freedom, theVirginia statute provided the most substantial guarantees of religious liberty of any state in thenew nation. The statute's implementation, however, proved to be problematic. Faced with a mandate for strict separation of church and state--and in an atmosphere ofsweeping evangelical Christianity--Virginians clashed over numerous issues, including thelegal ownership of church property, the incorporation of churches and religious groups, Sabbathobservance, protection for religious groups, Bible reading in school, and divorce laws. Such debatespitted churches against one another and engaged Virginia's legal system for a century and ahalf. Fascinating history in itself, the effort to implement Jefferson'sstatute has even broader significance in its anticipation of the conflict that would occupy thewhole country after the Supreme Court nationalized the religion clause of the First Amendment in the1940s.
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