by John Carey, CHEWV’s Legislative Liaison
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence
When the Founders of our nation claimed our rights to be inalienable, they thought it was settled. After all, what is bigger than nature and nature’s God? Clearly the Founders embraced the idea that transcendent, or absolute, truth can be known and lived out in the world. They were not cultural relativists. They knew that all theories of government did not take us to the same place nor have equal value. They had over 1000 years of English history to know that this was true. They constantly made it their mission to seek out the best ideas – and, boy! Did they make a difference! They created the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and nearly 200 years of freedom – a track record never equaled in the world.
It’s important that we remember that Thomas Jefferson was not a relativist, either. He did not believe in the equal validity of all ideas. Whatever else you believe about him, this fact cannot be denied. His efforts to embrace the best ideas eventually led to what he believed were the three greatest achievements of his life: the establishment of the University of Virginia, the Declaration of Independence, and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
In January of 1777, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, thirty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson met with a small group of friends to draft what would become the Bill to Establish Religious Freedom in Virginia. First introduced into the Virginia General Assembly by Jefferson in 1779, the bill became law in 1786. A portion of this bill was extracted verbatim and inserted into the Religious Freedom clause of the West Virginia State Constitution. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Thomas Jefferson authored West Virginia’s religious freedoms.
Here are the words of Thomas Jefferson as recorded in the WV State Constitution:
“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever; nor shall any man be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, or otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument, to maintain their opinions in matters of religion; and the same shall, in nowise, affect, diminish or enlarge their civil capacities.”
So what impact have Jefferson’s writings had on Religious Freedom in West Virginia?
Jefferson’s writings were cited by WV Circuit Judge J. Harold Brennan in the 1940’s to rule contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court decision previously used to force parents to comply with a West Virginia School Board regulation. In other words, the West Virginia court found greater support for religious liberty embedded in West Virginia’s State Constitution than in the U.S. Bill of Rights. (The details of this case can be found here.)
WV Protections Stronger than the Bill of Rights – Judge Brennan’s comments
The West Virginia Constitution provides that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place of ministry whatsoever; nor shall any man be forced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, or otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or beliefs….” Citing this provision, Judge Brennan held that, “it would be difficult to maintain that a court has the right to fine or imprison a man because he will not force his child to do a positive act wholly inconsistent with the religious beliefs of them both.” Judge Brennan relied on the West Virginia Constitution to safeguard religious liberties that were not protected by the Bill of Rights.
We can be thankful that Jefferson was not a cultural relativist. His courageous and uncompromising commitment to truth is blessing West Virginians even today.
In 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend David Humphreys, “There are rights which it is useless to surrender to the government and which governments have yet always been found to invade. These are the rights of thinking and publishing our thoughts by speaking or writing; the right of free commerce; the right of personal freedom.”
Jefferson knew that besides securing a law to uphold religious liberty, protections would need to be put in place to limit the power of the state so that it could not “invade” the rights of the people. Today, we have the freedom – even the duty – to not only acknowledge and exercise our religious liberty, but to do all we can to secure that liberty for our children and their children. Clearly, our Founding Fathers not only embraced the idea that absolute truth can be known and can be lived out in the world, but they spent their life choosing to do so. We must now do the same.