Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
As covered in the last installment of "Sunday Thoughts," the summer of 1784 saw the battle over Virginia's religious freedom in the Virginia Assembly stalemate. James Madison foresaw that Patrick Henry's "Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion" was set to pass. Madison, whose views regarding the nexus between government and religion did not allow for the preference of any religion, including Christianity, opposed Henry's bill. Instead, he wanted to see Thomas Jefferson's Religious Freedom Bill passed. Jefferson's bill fostered an agnostic view towards the protection of the pursuit of truth and was therefore much more favored by Madison.
Yet, interestingly, an analysis of Jefferson's Religious Freedom Bill reveals that, following the amendment of a provision allowing the taxpayer to designate his taxes to non-religious education, Henry's Bill did not conflict with Jefferson's. Indeed, one of the great historical ironies in this regard is that the debate in the Virginia Assembly led by Madison against Henry, in reality, was not required at all.
Regardless, Madison, a rival of Henry's, continued his active opposition to Henry's Bill. Towards the end of the 1784 session, Madison arranged for Henry's bill to be tabled, allowing Madison to go back home and seek the approval of the people of Virginia for his opposition to a tax funding religious-education teachers.
In the summer of 1784, Madison wroteand anonymously published his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," laying out his arguments against Henry's Bill. The Remonstrance would later be relied upon by twentieth-century jurists in developing modern jurisprudence on religious freedom in the United State of America.
With the battle lines reconfigured, the stage was set for a return to the Assembly for the next round in the fight over America's religious freedom. But a most providential event occurred for Madison and Jefferson, Virginia Governor Benjamin Harrison V died.
With the Virginia governorship vacant, Madison saw an opportunity here to remove Henry, who had already served as Governor, from the Virginia Assembly. In November 1784, Madison indeed arranged for Henry to be elected Governor of Virginia.
The consequence of the debate over the nature of religious freedom in Virginia, and subsequently America, was stark. Absent Henry's influence, his Bill supporting teachers of religion died in the Assembly during the 1785 session. Devoid of any contest from Henry, Jefferson's Religious Freedom Bill went on to easily pass during that same session. It would be, in Jefferson's own estimation, his crowning achievement, and one of the three he would request to be memorialized on his tombstone along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia.
The circumstances through which Jefferson's bill passed and Henry's failed is historically unfortunate as it gave the impression that one passed at the expense of the other. Nearly two centuries later that sense would be misused in calling for the government's sterilization of every form of religious influence. In point of fact, the most of the Framers and Founders were perfectly comfortable with the government promoting and supporting religion and religious education so long as no particular denomination was granted favor. For the Framer's the nonbeliever was to be respected, but not given advantage over the believer. They were certainly not to be in a position to suppress believers in their pursuit of Christianity and religious worship, even if it were in public.
As we shall see, through the interventions of the courts in a manner inconsistent with the will of the people or the will of the Framers, that is exactly the advantage non-religion has been given over religion.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pages and serves in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.