Jefferson's Act

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 1, No. 2,  August 2000

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United


The Original Intent of the First Amendment (Part 1)


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


It seems self-evident that these sixteen words clearly express the intention to separate church and state.  An increasingly large number of politically active Christians, however, have learned to read a different meaning into the words.  Their most prominent instructor is David Barton, vice chair of the Republican Party in Texas.  Barton gained notoriety by writing a book entitled, The Myth of Separation (Wallbuilder Press, 1992) in which he states,


Today we would best understand the actual context of the First Amendment by saying, ‘Congress shall make no law establishing one Christian denomination as the national denomination.’ . . . The intent of the First Amendment was not to separate Christianity and the state . . . As long as someone was pursuing some form of orthodox Christianity, he was protected in his freedom of worship and conscience.  The constitutions did not guarantee that freedom outside of traditional Christianity.”  (pp. 28-29)


Barton and his cronies in the Religious Right are zealously writing books revising history to conform to their interpretation of the First Amendment.  They are most concerned to get their views printed in public school textbooks.  Their pontifications about the original intentions of the framers of the constitution were carefully crafted to make refutation of their errors tedious and difficult.  After all, you can’t just call James Madison and Thomas Jefferson on the phone and ask them what they meant.  You have to do some research in dusty old history books to get a grasp of the purpose and intentions of our country’s founding fathers.


We thought we would save you some time and trouble.  We gathered some documents that will let you decide for yourself what the authors of the constitution really intended about the separation of church and state.   In future issues we will publish Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” and Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.” 

Bruce Prescott

NOTE:  This bill was introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779 but failed to gain a majority for several years.  In 1784 Patrick Henry offered an alternative bill entitled, “A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.”  Henry’s bill would have assessed a “moderate tax or contribution annually for the support of the Christian religion.”  In 1784 Jefferson was the American Ambassador in Paris, France.  James Madison took the lead in opposing Henry’s bill and in promoting Jefferson’s bill.  His “Memorial and Remonstrance” (see next issue) was instrumental in securing the defeat of Henry’s bill and the passage of Jefferson’s Act.  This bill clearly expresses the real thoughts and intentions of the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Act for Establishing Religious Freedom


By Thomas Jefferson, 1779


Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, 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 propogate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves 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, 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 temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing [of] any citizen as unworthy [of] the confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the 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 honors 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 to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, 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 offices to interfere when principles break out into over 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.


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.


And though we well know 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 the 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.


Written by Thomas Jefferson.  Quoted in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew A. Lipscomb (Washington, D.C.:  The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), pp. 300-303.



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"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

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