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The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson, 1786

        _A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom_

        SECTION I. Well aware that the opinions and belief of men
depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence
proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind
free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by
making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to
influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil
incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness,
and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our 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; that the impious
presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as
ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired
men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their
own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,
and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established
and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world
and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions
of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and
abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to
support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is
depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions
to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and
whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is
withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which
proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an
additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the
instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on
our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or
geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the
public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to
offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or
that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those
privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow
citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the
principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by
bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who
will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these
are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are
those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of
men are not the object of civil government, nor under its
jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his
powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or
propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a
dangerous falacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty,
because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his
opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments
of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that
it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for
its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts
against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and
will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and
sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the
conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural
weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous
when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

        SECT. II. WE the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no
man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship,
place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained,
molested, or burthened 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 no wise
diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

        SECT. III. AND though we well know that this Assembly, elected
by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no
power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with
powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act
irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare,
and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural
rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to
repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an
infringement of natural right.