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Subject:         First Freedom of Religion Act' Was passed in America in 1786!
   Date:         Sun, 31 Jan 1999 10:17:37 +0530
   From:        Ashok Chowgule <[email protected]>

First ‘Freedom of Religion Act'
Was passed in America in 1786!
Author: Tarun Vijay, Editor, Panchjanya
Date: January 31, 1999.

Much has been said about the rationale of stopping proselytizing activities of Christian missionaries in India, thanks to the debate carried on by the newspapers.

Though the Indian govt. may not be in favor of a Bill to stop conversions, yet an interesting and historic instance of how the very first Act of Religious Freedom ever introduced in the world was passed by the Assembly of Virginia in 1786, needs to be put before the public.  The credit for it of course goes to one of the greatest democrats of all times, Thomas Jefferson.

In the 18th century American churches were suffering from sectarianism and no two churches tolerated each other. The clergy were compelling people to join their churches by coercion and giving attractive emoluments. There were so many cases of injuring persons who had joined a new Church. All decent men were shocked. Thomas Jefferson also sharply reacted to this and said:

"We have no right to prejudice another in his civil enjoyment because he is of another church. If any man err from the right way it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee; nor therefore are thou to punish him in the things of this life because thou supposeth he will be miserable in that which is to come-- on the contrary according to the spirit of the
gospel, charity, bounty, liberty is due to him.”

He rebuked the clergy for the evil ways adopted by them in the name of serving the poor and preaching the Gospel: ”The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglects the care of it? Well, what if he neglects the care of his health or estate, which more nearly relate to the state? Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick...? If the magistrate command me to bring my commodity to a
public storehouse I bring it because he can indemnify me if he erred and I thereby lose it; but what indemnification can he give on for the kingdom of heaven? No Man complains of his neighbor for ill management of his affairs for an error in showing his land or marrying his daughter - but if he does not frequent the church orr than conform to ceremonies, there is an immediate uproar.”

Jefferson was so disillusioned by the corrupt practices being adopted by the clergy for expanding the church membership that he said: "...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 confirm to it..."

He further said: "Let us reflect that it (earth) is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand.  That if there be but one right and ours that one, we should wish to see the nine hundred and ninety nine wondering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority(,) we cannot effect his (our religion's) by force (or bribe).  Reason and Persuasion are the only practicable instruments.  To make way for these(,) free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves."

Text of Act

Under the leadership of Jefferson, Virginia adopted the "Religious Freedom Act-1786."

Here is its text:

That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens or by civil incapacitation’s, 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 propagate it by coercion 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 but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed domination 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, both 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 be would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness and 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, more than our opinions in physics or geometry;

That therefore, the prescribing of any citizen unworthy of the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emoluments 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 criminals 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 introduce 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, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgement 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 officers to interfere when principles break out into overt 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 no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

In a letter to S. Kercheral, Jefferson wrote in 1810

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and State' that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves; that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus and do, in fact, constitute the real Antichrist."

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