“Religious Liberty in Virginia” American Sentinel 11, 7, pp. 49, 50.

February 13, 1896

VIRGINIA, a State which has long stood second to none in guaranteeing liberty of conscience, seems about to enact additional Sunday statutes.

The text of the proposed “law” was published in these colums [sic.] last week. It is designed to affect only railroad and steamship companies, but it violates the principles of the separation of Church and State, so ably advocated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, more than a century ago, just as truly as though it proposed to interfere with the individual citizen.

Human rights antedate all governments. They existed as soon as man was created, and are entirely independent of civil authority; and it seems strange that the legislators of any American commonwealth should entertain for a moment the idea that rights are conferred by the State; and yet such is the thought underlying all religious legislation.

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, presents the matter in its true light, namely, that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and “that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

Subsequently to writing the immortal Declaration, Mr. Jefferson wrote:—

Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him. 519

And again in the same letter Jefferson says: “When the laws have declared and enforced all this [natural rights and duties], they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.

Mr. Jefferson very pertinently remarks that “the trial of every law by one of these tests would lessen much the labors of our legislators, and lighten equally our municipal codes.”

Tried by the rule stated by Jefferson, the Sunday bill now before the Virginia legislature will be found to far exceed the rightful limits of legislative power.

The late Alexander H. Stevens entertained views similar to those held by Mr. Jefferson. He said:—

In forming single societies or States, men only enter into a compact with each other—a social compact—either expressed or implied, as before stated, for their mutual protection in the enjoyment by each of all their natural rights. The chief object of all good governments, therefore, should be the protection of all the natural rights of their constituent members.

Upon entering into society for the purpose of having their natural rights secured and protected, or properly redressed, the weak do not give up or surrender any portion of their priceless heritage in any government instituted and organized as it should be.

In no other State have such questions been any more thoroughly discussed than in Virginia. “Early in the autumnal session of the legislature of 1785,” says Bancroft, 520 “Patrick Henry proposed a resolution for a legal provision for the teachers of the Christian religion. In the absence of Jefferson, the opponents of the measure were led by Madison, whom Witherspoon 521 had imbued with theological lore. The assessment bill, he said, exceeds the functions of civil authority. The question has been stated as if it were, Is religion necessary? The true question is, Are establishments necessary for religion? And the answer is, they corrupt religion. The difficulty of providing for the support of religion is the result of the war, to be remedied by voluntary association for religious purposes. In the event of a statute for the support of the Christian religion, are the courts of law to decide what is Christianity? and, as a consequence, to decide what is orthodoxy and what is heresy? The enforced support of the Christian religion dishonors Christianity. Yet, in spite of all the opposition that could be mustered, leave to bring in the bill was granted by forty-seven votes against thirty-two. 522 The bill, when reported, prescribed a general assessment on all taxable property for the support of teachers of the Christian religion. Each person, as he paid his tax, was to say to which society he dedicated it; in case he refused to do so, his payment was to be applied toward the maintenance of a county school. On the third reading the bill received a check, and was ordered by a small majority to be printed and distributed for the consideration of the people. Thus the people of Virginia had before them for their choice the bill of the revised code for establishing religious freedom, and the plan of desponding churchmen for the supporting religion by a general assessment.

“All the State, from the sea to the mountains and beyond them, was alive with the discussion. Madison, in a remonstrance addressed to the legislature, embodied all that could be said against the compulsory maintenance of Christianity and in behalf of religious freedom as a natural right, the glory of Christianity itself, the surest method of supporting religion, and the only way to produce moderation and harmony among its several sects. George Mason, who was an enthusiast for entire freedom, asked of Washington his opinion, and received for answer that ‘no man’s sentiments were more opposed to any kind of restraint upon religious principles.’ While he was not among those who were so much alarmed at the thought of making people of the denominations of Christians pay [50] toward the support of that denomination which they professed, provided Jews, Mahometans, and others who were not Christians, might obtain proper relief, his advice was given in these words: ‘As the matter now stands, I wish an assessment had never been agitated; and, as it has gone so far, that the bill could die an easy death.’ 523

“The general committee of the Baptists unanimously appointed a delegate to remonstrate with the general assembly against the assessment, and they resolved that no human laws ought to be established for that purpose; that every free person ought to be free in matters of religion. 524 The general convention of the Presbyterian Church prayed the legislature expressly that the bill concerning religious freedom might be passed into a law as the best safeguard then attainable for their religious rights. 525

“When the legislature of Virginia assembled, no one was willing to bring forward the assessment bill, and it was never heard of more. Out of one hundred and seventeen articles of the revised code which were then reported, Madison selected for immediate consideration the one which related to religious freedom. The people of Virginia had held it under deliberation for six years, in December, 1785, it passed the House by a vote of nearly four to one. Attempts in the Senate for amendment produced only insignificant changes in the preamble, and on the sixteenth of January, 1786, Virginia placed among its statutes the very words of the original draft by Jefferson with the hope that they would endure forever: ‘No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; opinion in matters of religion shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect civil capacities. The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind.” 526

“‘Thus,’ says Madison, ‘in Virginia was extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.’”

It will be observed that the opposition to the proposed legislation for the support of teachers of the Christian religion was not from an infidel but from a Christian standpoint. Madison was himself “bred in the school of the Presbyterian dissenters under Witherspoon at Princeton,” 527 and the Virginia Presbyterians and Baptists of that day were certainly not open to the charge of hostility to Christianity. The fight against the bill, supposed to be for the preservation of Christianity, was made wholly in the interests of Christianity and of God-given rights.

Mr. Madison’s first reason for opposing the bill was because “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

His second reason was, “Because, if religion be exempt from the authority of the society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the legislative body,” whose jurisdiction, he argued, was both derivative and limited.

Mr. Madison’s third reason for opposing religious legislation in Virginia in 1785 is just as applicable to the legislation proposed now. “Who does not see,” he asks, “that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians?”

Equally pertinent would be the question now: Who does not see that the same authority that can require the observance of one Christian institution, may establish with the same ease any other real or supposed Christian institution and require its observance? There can be but one reason for hedging the Sunday about with legal restrictions and prohibitions, namely, its supposed sacred character; and who does not see that it would be just as legitimate for the legislature to guard or enforce in like manner any other institution of the Church?

Again, Mr. Madison, and those who joined with him in this memorial, objected to the “bill establishing a provision for teachers of the Christian religion” on the ground that it violated “that equality which ought to be the basis of every law.” This is equally true of the present bill. It violates equality because it requires in some degree the observance of a religious institution. Said Mr. Madison: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to them whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.” The present Sunday bill, like all such measures, takes no account of the right of every man not to observe Sunday.

Again, as pointed out in the fifth division of Mr. Madison’s memorial, the bill now before the Virginia Legislature, equally with the bill then under consideration, implies the right to employ religion as an engine of civil policy; and also to use the civil power to support and enforce religion.

As it is religious sentiment which demands such legislation as that now proposed in Virginia, so it is religious sentiment which enforces such legislation. In fact, by such laws the State simply clothes the Church with civil power, and within certain proscribed limits, makes it the “duty” of the magistrate to adjudicate religious questions and enforce religious discipline. And this is equally true of the Sunday “laws” already upon the statute books of Virginia. Section 3800 provides that:—

The forfeiture declared by the preceding section shall not be incurred by any person who conscientiously believes that the seventh day of the week ought to be observed as a Sabbath, and actually refrains from all secular business and labor on that day, provided he does not compel an apprentice or servant not of his belief to do secular work or business on a Sunday, and does not on that day disturb any other person.

Such an exemption is itself evidence of the religious character of the “law.” Thus even the attempts of legislators to do justice and to recognize the right of every citizen to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, show such legislation to be alike in flagrant violation of the Virginia Bill of Rights, of the “Act Establishing Religious Liberty,” and of the natural rights of man.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that the Legislature of Virginia will not only reject this present Sunday bill, but will make haste to repeal the various measures of religious legislation now upon the statute books of that State, and thus vindicate the principles so ably announced and defended over a century ago by Jefferson and Madison, the ablest statesmen of that day, and by Witherspoon, the Christian minister, educator, and patriot.

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