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June 12: Freedom of Religion

June 11, 2016

mason-declaration-1776-06-12-pg1The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written principally by George Mason, was ratified by the Fifth Virginia Convention at Williamsburg, Virginia on this date in 1776. Its sixteenth article declared that “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; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience . . .” This was an early articulation of the right to freedom of religion that have, from the founding of the United States, empowered Jews to be full citizens without conversionary pressures. However, after the document’s adoption, the Church of England remained the state church in Virginia, supported by taxes and controlling a number of governmental functions, including oversight of the poor and of orphans. Virginia law also discriminated in favor of Anglicans, and dissenters such as Presbyterians and Baptists experienced active persecution. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted “An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom,” arguing that the inalienable right of freedom of conscience was limited by the establishment of any religion. This engendered a battle over disestablishment in Virginia that went on for ten years, right through the Revolutionary War, until 1786, when the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enshrined principles of separation of church and state and freedom of religion.

“Virginia did not develop a significant Jewish community during the colonial era. The reason was primarily economic as Virginia did not have a thriving port city like Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, which all attracted small but thriving Jewish communities. . . . In 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom which finally granted religious liberty to Jews in the state. With this new freedom, and the rise of mercantile centers in Richmond and Norfolk, the state’s Jewish population began to grow slowly. . . . Jews lived in Richmond by the 1760s, and established the state’s first Jewish congregation in 1789, only the sixth to be founded in the United States.”--Goldring/Wolburg Institute of Southern Jewish Life