Thomas Jefferson wanted what he considered to be his three greatest achievements to be listed on his tombstone. The inscription, as he stipulated, reads “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”
Today we celebrate the 230th anniversary of one of those great creations: the passage, in 1786, of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Each year, the President declares January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day, and calls upon Americans to “observe this day through appropriate events and activities in homes, schools, and places of worship.” One way to honor the day is to reflect on these ten quotes about religious liberty that were expressed by some of our country's greatest leaders:
Conscience is the most sacred of all property.
—James Madison, essay on Property
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17
There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.
—John Witherspoon, The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men
Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.
—John Adams, Letter to Benjamin Rush
Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only be reason and convection, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
—James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance
I consider the government of the U.S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Miller
Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile to his conscience . . . . It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God.
—John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable
While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable.
—George Washington, Letter to Benedict Arnold
When our Founding Fathers passed the First Amendment, they sought to protect churches from government interference. They never intended to construct a wall of hostility between government and the concept of religious belief itself.
—Ronald Reagan, Remarks at Conference on Religious Liberty
To those who cite the First Amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just say: The First Amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.
—Ronald Reagan, Address to Alabama State Legislature