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On April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was born. In the years that followed, Jefferson would become a farmer, lawyer, architect, inventor, clockmaker, philosopher, patriot, author of the Declaration of Independence, first U.S. secretary of state, third U.S. president, founder of the University of Virginia, and more.
The “more” includes his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Drafted in 1777 by Jefferson, the statute disestablished the Church of England as Virginia’s state religion and forbade the state from setting up another church in its place. It also guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths. Once adopted, the statute became a model for subsequent statutes across the country, as well as the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Although Jefferson later coined the phrase, “wall of separation” to describe the relationship he envisioned between Church and State, a letter he sent to the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase made it clear that, as he saw it, the wall was there to protect the Church as much as the State. As he explained to the Ursulines:
I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana.
The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.
Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under.
Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.