As we noted in a recent blog, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, professor at American University, wrote that in 1779, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as governor of Virginia, was the “chair of the Virginia Committee of Revisors,” and as such “he was chief architect” of the set of religious bills that were “apparently framed by Jefferson.” It was in this context that the famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was touted.
The bills on religion were first presented to the legislature as a package with consecutive numbering. Bill #83 was for “Saving the Property of the Church Heretofore by Law Established” thus protecting the now disestablished Anglican Church from lawsuits. Bill #84, “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers,” eventually passed in 1786, along with #82 on Religious Freedom. Bill #85 authorized the governor to issue proclamations of Public Days of Prayer, but it also included penalties for ministers who failed to observe the day! And Bill #86 “for Annulling marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law” was deliberately based on the Bible. Many years later Jefferson said of this bill: “…early in our revolution the legislature of Virginia thought it necessary that their code of laws should be revised, and made homogeneous with their new situation. This task was committed to mr. Wythe, mr. Pendleton and myself, among others, the law regulating marriages came under consideration. We thought it most orthodox and correct to copy into our bill the very words of the Levitical law.” This paints a different picture than the common one of today where Jefferson seeks to keep religion separate from civil law.
Few modern scholars mention these bills as being equally identified with Jefferson, perhaps because it doesn’t fit the secular motivation paradigm that they assign to Jefferson with Bill #82 for religious freedom (the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom). But since the whole package of religious bills were mainly Jefferson’s work over the previous two years it is without scholarly basis to give Jefferson credit for the one bill on religious freedom but not for the others.