Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)

This Virginia law declared that government-mandated religion was a violation of natural rights and therefore, “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever….” Furthermore, “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion.” These two affirmations are the roots of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause.

The law was partially prompted by Patrick Henry’s call to expand government support for teachers, who were mainly Episcopalian ministers. Passage of the law led to the end of all forced support for the Episcopalian church in the state. Thus Virginia became the first state to disestablish its official religion. Other states followed suit, especially after the ratification of the First Amendment. Authored by Thomas Jefferson and steered through the Virginia Legislature by James Madison, it is still part of Virginia’s state constitution.