“Each year on January 16, we celebrate Religious Freedom Day in commemoration of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” – wrote President George W. Bush in his 2003 proclamation.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was passed by Virginia’s Assembly on Jan. 16, 1786. It was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and commemorated on his tombstone.

Did Jefferson intend to limit the public religious expression of students, teachers, coaches, chaplains, schools, organizations and communities?

Jefferson wrote in his original 1777 draft of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom: “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and … all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments … tend only to begat habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.”

Thomas Jefferson explained in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1805: “In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.”

Jefferson explained to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted (prohibited) by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. … This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States (10th Amendment). …”

Jefferson continued: “Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. … I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines. … Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”

In 1776, a year before Jefferson drafted his statute, another Virginian, George Mason, drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was later revised by James Madison and referred to in his Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights stated: “Religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other.”

James Madison made a journal entry, June 12, 1788: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion. … The subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it.”

On June 7, 1789, James Madison introduced the First Amendment in the first session of Congress with the wording: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship.”

James Madison appointed to the Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Justice Joseph Story wrote in his “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,” 1833, Chapter XLIV, “Amendments to the Constitution,” Section 991: “The real object of the First Amendment was, not to countenance, much less advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.”

Samuel Chase, who had been appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington, wrote in the Maryland case of Runkel v. Winemiller, 1799: “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.”

How did the interpretation of the First Amendment evolve? What follows is an in-depth explanation of separation of church and state.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens admitted in Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985: “At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith.”

When the country began, religious liberty was under each individual colony’s jurisdiction.

In the decision Engel v. Vitale, 1962, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote: “Groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England … passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.”

Like dropping a pebble in a pond and the ripples go out, individual states began to expand religious liberty at their own speeds:

  • from the particular Christian denomination that founded each colony
  • to all Protestants
  • then to Catholics
  • then to new and sometimes more liberal Christian denominations
  • then to Jews
  • then to monotheists
  • then to polytheists

Through court cases, religion transitioned from the states to being under the federal government’s jurisdiction, and process continued to expand “religious” liberty to atheists, pagans, occultic, and eventually to religions demonstrably anti-Judeo-Christian.

After the Constitution went into effect, the 13 original states ratified the first Ten Amendments which were specifically intended to limit the power of the new federal government.

The First Amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

The word “Congress” meant the Federal Congress.

Shall make no law
“Shall make no law” meant the Federal Congress could not introduce, debate, vote on or send to the president any bill respecting an establishment of religion. This also would imply the federal courts “shall make no law” – something the founders could have never imagined or thought proper, but nevertheless what recent activist justices have become adept at.

The word “respecting” meant “concerning” or “pertaining to.” It was simply telling the federal government to keep its “hands off” all religious issues. When anything regarding religion came before the federal government, the response was to be nothing, as the federal government was not given jurisdiction to decide on that issue, neither for nor against.

“Establishment” did not mean “acknowledgment.” It did not mean the mere mentioning of God, Judeo-Christian beliefs, or prayer.

Establishment was a clearly understood term, as nearly every country in Europe, as well as most of the colonies, had establishments of religion where one particular Christian denomination had its organization, hierarchy and staff structure recognized exclusively by the government.

There was a distinct difference between “general” Christianity and Christianity “with an established church,” as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) cited Pennsylvania’s Updegraph v. The Commonwealth (1824): “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and always has been, a part of the common law of Pennsylvania; Christianity, without the spiritual artillery of European countries; for this Christianity was one of the considerations of the royal charter, and the very basis of its great founder, William Penn; not Christianity founded on any particular religious tenets; not Christianity with an established church, and tithes, and spiritual courts; but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men.”

At the time of America’s independence, most European countries had some kind of ” established church”:

  • England had established the Anglican Church
  • Sweden had established the Lutheran Church
  • Scotland had established the Church of Scotland
  • Holland had established the Dutch Reformed Church
  • Russia had established the Russian Orthodox Church
  • Serbia had established the Serbian Orthodox Church
  • Romania had established the Romanian Orthodox Church
  • Greece had established the Greek Orthodox Church
  • Bulgaria had established the Bulgarian Orthodox Church
  • Finland had established the Finnish Orthodox Church
  • Ethiopia had established the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • Switzerland had established Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances
  • Italy, Spain, France, Poland, Austria, Mexico, Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, Vatican City had established the Roman Catholic Church

The attitude of the original 13 states was that they did not want the new federal government to follow the pattern of these other nations and have one particular denomination set up its headquarters in the Capitol building.

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Allegorically, they did not want a federal “Walmart” church to come into town and put out of business their local State “mom and pop store” denominations.

Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
To make the purpose of the First Amendment unquestionably clear, they went on to state that the federal Congress could make no laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

Ronald Reagan stated in a radio address, 1982: “Founding Fathers … enshrined the principle of freedom of religion in the First Amendment. … The purpose of that Amendment was to protect religion from the interference of government and to guarantee, in its own words, ‘the free exercise of religion.'”

Religion under states
Like dealing a deck of cards in a card game, the states dealt to the federal government jurisdiction over few things, such as providing for the common defense and regulating interstate commerce, but the rest of the cards were held by the states.

Justice Joseph Story wrote in his “Commentaries on the Constitution,” 1833: “The whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice and the state constitutions.”

Just as today:

  • some states allow minors to consume alcohol and other states do not
  • some states allow the selling of marijuana and others do not
  • some states have smoking bans and others do not
  • some states allow gambling and others do not
  • some states allow prostitution (Nevada and formerly Rhode Island) and the rest do not

At the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified, some states allowed more religious freedom, such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and other states, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, did not. But it was up to the people in each state to decide.

Congressman James Meacham of Vermont gave a House Judiciary Committee report, March 27, 1854: “At the adoption of the Constitution, we believe every state – certainly ten of the thirteen – provided as regularly for the support of the church as for the support of the government.”

To read the rest of Bill Federer’s breakdown on the evolution of the First Amentment, click here.

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