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Archive for March, 2016

jeffersons-grave

Reading legislation is instructive. Occasionally it’s downright inspiring, seeing legislators laying down wise markers. Take for example the following bit of legislation authored by Jefferson, passed in January 1786 by the Virginia legislature largely through the efforts of Madison, and still in full force and effect as Virginia Code § 57-1:

Be it 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 burthened, 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 no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know that 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 powers equal to our own, and that, therefore, to declare this act to be 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.

Virginia Senate Bill 41, which passed both houses of the General Assembly earlier this month, was neither so inspiring nor so sweeping as the foregoing markers laid down by Jefferson and Madison. Its addition to the Code of Virginia was perhaps not strictly necessary — its provisions being implicit in the 1786 statute quoted above, and merely a clarifying response to the Supreme Court’s constitutional redefinition of matrimony. Reading the text of SB 41, the only thing about it I found striking was how narrow and modest its provisions were.

The fact that Gov. McAuliffe vetoed it, on the other hand, indicates that the Governor doesn’t really agree with Jefferson and Madison’s Statute for Religious Freedom, and regards it (if at all) only as one might regard a curious historical artifact.

As I noted last September, the Jeffersonian/Madisonian Settlement of Religious Freedom is crumbling. If it crumbles in Virginia — the land where it was first achieved — where can it endure?

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