The significance of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom goes far beyond the borders of the Old Dominion.
Its influence ultimately extended to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the separation of church and state. In his latest
book, Thomas Buckley tells the story of the statute, beginning with its background in the struggles of the colonial dissenters
against an oppressive Church of England. When the Revolution forced the issue of religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson drafted
his statute and James Madison guided its passage through the state legislature. Displacing an established church by instituting
religious freedom, the Virginia statute provided the most substantial guarantees of religious liberty of any state in the
new nation. The statute's implementation, however, proved to be problematic. Faced with a mandate for strict separation of
church and state--and in an atmosphere of sweeping evangelical Christianity--Virginians clashed over numerous issues, including
the legal ownership of church property, the incorporation of churches and religious groups, Sabbath observance, protection
for religious groups, Bible reading in school, and divorce laws. Such debates pitted churches against one another and engaged
Virginia's legal system for a century and a half.
Fascinating history in itself, the effort to implement Jefferson's
statute has even broader significance in its anticipation of the conflict that would occupy the whole country after the Supreme
Court nationalized the religion clause of the First Amendment in the 1940s.