The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution

Lesson I. Historical Background

Step 8. Who's Who

George Mason

Principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776). Mason was the most experienced lawyer among the delegates working to reform the Virginia legal code after declaring separation from England. In his first draft for the Declaration of Rights, he proposed “...all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion...”

George Washington

Highly respected commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After the war, he supported Patrick Henry’s proposal to allow tax money to support teachers of religion at a church of the tax payer’s choice, rather than only to the established church. He believed government support of religion encouraged people to be virtuous. Washington changed his mind after the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom passed in 1786. He then agreed that the government should not use tax money to support religion.

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which he wrote in 1777 and introduced to the Virginia legislature in 1779. The legislature did not consider the bill for its far-out views of completely separating government from religion. In 1786, while Jefferson was in France, James Madison revived Jefferson’s bill and shepherded its passage, turning it into law. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom reveals Jefferson’s far-out view that the government should not support religion with tax money.

James Madison

An inexperienced delegate to the Fifth Virginia Convention in 1776, which considered George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Madison had seriously considered the plight of Baptist preachers in his home county, imprisoned for preaching without licenses. He proposed to amend George Mason’s “fullest toleration” language for the Virginia Declaration of Rights to “...all men are entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience…” He believed any government requirement for religious devotion violated the right of conscience.

Patrick Henry

A distinguished orator while in elected office, also served as governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War. After the war, he proposed changing the tradition of using tax money to support the established church of Virginia, to using tax money to support a religion of the tax payer’s choice. He believed the role of government in religion was to encourage civic virtue by using taxes to pay Christian teachers of religion. He also believed it was wrong to compel paying taxes for a church with which one disagreed.
Lesson I. Step 8 of 9


Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.