Find below our modern English “translation” of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed on January 16, 1786. The statute led to the formation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans.
You can read the original text of the statute here.
An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
We are all born with the ability to think, and attempts to control our thoughts by punishments or jail tend to bring about only hypocrisy and meanness. To attempt to control our thoughts in this way would be a divergence from God’s plan, as despite being all powerful, God chose not to force religion on humans, opting to give us free will instead.
It is a disrespectful presumption for any leader-civil or religious-who are all imperfect beings, to attempt to control the faiths of others, by imposing their own opinions and ways of thinking as the only true and right way. In attempting to push their beliefs on others, they have established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and throughout time.
To make an individual pay for the teaching of beliefs he doesn’t share is wrong and cruel. Even when a person is forced to support his own religion, doing so takes away that person’s choice to support a particular pastor or religious leader he idolizes, and negatively impacts the church, which generally does sincere work to benefit humankind.
Our civil rights are not based on any religious belief, just like our opinions on science or math are not. Therefore, forbidding any citizen from public office or receiving a salary, based on their religious beliefs would be to unfairly deprive that person of privileges and advantages they have a natural right to, just like everyone else. This behavior only corrupts the principles of the very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of heaven and money, those who will proclaim their religiosity and conform to it. Even though it is illegal to bribe, those who encourage it are guilty too.
To allow a legislator to tell people what to think and to prevent the sharing of ideas on the uncertain belief that they could be evil is a mistake that at once destroys all religious liberty. That is because when the legislator decides what’s evil, the government’s opinion gets to decide what’s evil, and to approve or condemn the views of others based only on whether that person agrees or disagrees with the accepted opinion. This negatively impacts the government’s ability to do what is right for the purposes of a civil society, and for officers to act when there is a true threat to peace and good order.
Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself. Truth is the proper and sufficient enemy to mistakes, has nothing to fear, and unless human interference takes away her natural weapons of free argument and debate, being wrong isn’t dangerous when truth is allowed to overrule it.
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no person shall be forced to attend or fund any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall he or she be forced, restrained, molested-physically or financially-burdened, or otherwise suffer on account of being open about his or her religious beliefs. Instead, all people shall be free to have and maintain their religious beliefs and opinions, with no impact on their rights as citizens.
As an assembly elected by the people for the purpose of passing laws, we understand that we have no power to limit the acts of future assemblies with the same powers as ours, and therefore have no ability to declare that this act cannot be repealed. However, we are free to declare that the rights listed above are inherent and cannot be taken away by law, and if any act shall be passed subsequent to this statute-either to repeal or limit it-we declare that law to be a violation of our natural rights as human beings and Americans.