Today is Religious Freedom Day, which celebrates the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed in 1786. There’s a very interesting story behind the law, which was originally written by Thomas Jefferson and pushed through to passage by James Madison.
Jefferson first drafted the bill in 1777, but did not submit it to the Virginia Assembly until 1779, where it originally failed. It was that bill that first brought Jefferson and Madison together because Madison strongly agreed with the need to separate church and state. Jefferson quickly became something of a mentor to him. In 1784, Jefferson left for France as the American ambassador to that country, leaving Madison to take up the task of getting the official Anglican church in Virginia disestablished.
The bill was submitted in response to a bill by Patrick Henry that would have established a church tax on all Virginia residents, with the revenue from the tax being divided up among several churches. Madison led the fight against that legislation and submitted Jefferson’s act as a replacement, writing his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in support of both actions. Jefferson’s bill said, in part:
Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; 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 nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
This was a radical idea at the time, when most states restricted public service to those of a certain religion, or who could profess a particular Christian creed. This then became a model for other states as they gradually disestablished their own official churches and also was the model for the religion clauses of the First Amendment.
And one very important note: This legislation passed in large part because the clergy of many minority sects — Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians — lobbied in its favor. Baptist ministers had previously been put in jail in Virginia under its Anglican establishment and ministers like John Leland and Isaac Backus were among the most vocal supporters of church/state separation.