Quotations about   religious freedom

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It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930) American attorney, politician, Supreme Court justice (1981-2006)
McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) [concurring]
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Declaring Ten Commandments displays in two Kentucky county courthouses to be unconstitutional.

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Added on 10-May-22 | Last updated 10-May-22
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Reasonable minds can disagree about how to apply the Religion Clauses in a given case. But the goal of the Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses

, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. […] Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930) American attorney, politician, Supreme Court justice (1981-2006)
McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844 (2005) (concurring)
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Added on 25-Apr-22 | Last updated 25-Apr-22
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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 nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)
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Added on 28-Mar-22 | Last updated 28-Mar-22
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Our secularism is hard-won, the product of centuries of political, intellectual, and sometimes physical courage. Secularism is the institutionalization of doubt, or more precisely of respect for doubt. It is harder to love doubt than to love freedom. So we are grudging about our secularism, and some of us are a little ashamed of it. Maybe it takes Rushdie’s nightmare and Khomeini’s rage to remind us how precious it is, and how fiercely it must be guarded.

Hendrik Hertzberg (b. 1943) American journalist, editor, speech writer, political commentator
“TRB from Washington,” The New Republic (20 Mar 1989)
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Added on 25-Feb-22 | Last updated 25-Feb-22
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Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17 (1785)
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Added on 24-Jan-22 | Last updated 24-Jan-22
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Where is it written that if you don’t like religion you are somehow disqualified from being a legitimate American? What was Mark Twain, a Russian?

Hendrik Hertzberg (b. 1943) American journalist, editor, speech writer, political commentator
“Antidisestablishmentarianism,” The New Republic (16 Sep 1985)
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Reprinted in Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004 (2005). Responding to a speech from William Bennett, Secretary of Education, about liberals having an "aversion to religion," thus requiring government promotion of "Judeo-Christian tradition."
Added on 21-Jan-22 | Last updated 21-Jan-22
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Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else’s religion practiced on us.

John Irving
John Irving (b. 1942) American-Canadian novelist and screenwriter [b. John Wallace Blunt Jr.]
My Movie Business, ch. 8 (1999)
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Added on 10-Sep-21 | Last updated 10-Sep-21
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If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) American lawyer
Scopes Trial, Dayton, Tennessee (13 Jul 1925)
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Added on 20-May-21 | Last updated 20-May-21
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Democracy means that people can say what they want to. All the people. It means that they can vote as they wish. All the people. It means that they can worship God in any way they feel right, and that includes Christians and Jews and voodoo doctors as well.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) American screenwriter and novelist [James Dalton Trumbo]
The Remarkable Andrew (1942)

Based on Trumbo's 1941 book of the same name. Parallel text.
Added on 13-Nov-18 | Last updated 13-Nov-18
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The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, “cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.” To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is “compelling” — permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, “to become a law unto himself” — contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.

Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) US Supreme Court justice
Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, majority opinion (1990)
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Opinion holding that the state could prohibit religious-based peyote use.
Added on 31-Jul-18 | Last updated 31-Jul-18
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Religious discord has lost her sting; the cumbrous weapons of theological warfare are antiquated: the field of politics supplies the alchymists of our times with materials of more fatal explosion, and the butchers of mankind no longer travel to another world for instruments of cruelty and destruction. Our age is too enlightened to contend upon topics, which concern only the interests of eternity; and men who hold in proper contempt all controversies about trifles, except such as inflame their own passions, have made it a common-place censure against your ancestors, that their zeal was enkindled by subjects of trivial importance; and that however aggrieved by the intolerance of others, they were alike intolerant themselves. Against these objections, your candid judgment will not require an unqualified justification; but your respect and gratitude for the founders of the State may boldly claim an ample apology. The original grounds of their separation from the church of England, were not objects of a magnitude to dissolve the bonds of communion; much less those of charity, between Christian brethren of the same essential principles.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) US President (1825-29)
Speech, Plymouth (22 Dec 1802)
Added on 28-Nov-16 | Last updated 28-Nov-16
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Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
On Liberty, ch. 3 (1859)
Added on 22-Sep-15 | Last updated 22-Sep-15
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Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Benjamin Rush (1812)
Added on 1-Jul-15 | Last updated 24-Jun-15
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I also give it in charge to you to avoid all disrespect of the religion of the country, and its ceremonies. Prudence, policy, and a true Christian spirit, will lead us to look wit compassion up their errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case are they answerable.

George Washington (1732-1799) American military leader, Founding Father, US President (1789-1797)
“Charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force,” letter to Benedict Arnold (14 Sep 1775)
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Regarding the invasion of (Catholic) Quebec, Canada.
Added on 26-Jun-15 | Last updated 24-Jun-15
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Some very worthy persons, who have not had great advantages for information, have objected against that clause in the constitution which provides, that no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. They have been afraid that this clause is unfavorable to religion. But my countrymen, the sole purpose and effect of it is to exclude persecution, and to secure to you the important right of religious liberty. We are almost the only people in the world, who have a full enjoyment of this important right of human nature. In our country every man has a right to worship God in that way which is most agreeable to his conscience. If he be a good and peaceable person he is liable to no penalties or incapacities on account of his religious sentiments; or in other words, he is not subject to persecution. But in other parts of the world, it has been, and still is, far different. Systems of religious error have been adopted, in times of ignorance. It has been the interest of tyrannical kings, popes, and prelates, to maintain these errors. When the clouds of ignorance began to vanish, and the people grew more enlightened, there was no other way to keep them in error, but to prohibit their altering their religious opinions by severe persecuting laws. In this way persecution became general throughout Europe.

Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807) American lawyer, politician, Founder, Supreme Court chief justice (1796-1800)
Essay (17 Dec 1787)
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Added on 24-Jun-15 | Last updated 24-Jun-15
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We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Speech, Baptist General Meeting, Chesterfield, Virginia (21 Nov 1808)
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Added on 20-May-15 | Last updated 20-May-15
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Ultimately, therefore, the question “whether or not we admit religious values into our public affairs” is too broad to yield a single answer. “Yes,” we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But “no,” all religiously based values don’t have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedoms, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 18-May-15 | Last updated 18-May-15
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We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Dr. Price (8 Apr 1785)
Added on 13-May-15 | Last updated 13-May-15
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The arguments start when religious values are used to support positions which would impose on other people restrictions they find unacceptable. Some people do object to Catholic demands for an end to abortion, seeing it as a violation of the separation of church and state. And some others, while they have no compunction about invoking the authority of the Catholic bishops in regard to birth control and abortion, might reject out of hand their teaching on war and peace and social policy.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 11-May-15 | Last updated 11-May-15
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The American states have gone far in assisting the progress of truth; but they have stopped short of perfection. They ought to have given every honest citizen an equal right to enjoy his religion and an equal title to all civil emoluments, without obliging him to tell his religion. Every interference of the civil power in regulating opinion, is an impious attempt to take the business of the Deity out of his own hands; and every preference given to any religious denomination, is so far slavery and bigotry.

Noah Webster, Jr. (1758-1843) American lexicographer and author
Sketches of American Policy (1785)
Added on 7-May-15 | Last updated 7-May-15
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Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.

George Washington (1732-1799) American military leader, Founding Father, US President (1789-1797)
Letter to Edward Newenham (30 Oct 1792)
Added on 6-May-15 | Last updated 6-May-15
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Our public morality, then — the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives — depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not — and should not — be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 4-May-15 | Last updated 4-May-15
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If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.

George Washington (1732-1799) American military leader, Founding Father, US President (1789-1797)
Letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia (May 1789)
Added on 29-Apr-15 | Last updated 29-Apr-15
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Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes its original benignity.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American political philosopher and writer
The Rights of Man (1791)
Added on 28-Apr-15 | Last updated 28-Apr-15
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The Catholic public official lives the political truth most Catholics through most of American history have accepted and insisted on: the truth that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful. I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant or non-believer, or as anything else you choose.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 27-Apr-15 | Last updated 27-Apr-15
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In addition to all the weaknesses, dilemmas and temptations that impede every pilgrim’s progress, the Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy — who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics — bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones — sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion. In fact, Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution that guarantees this freedom. And they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholics: our right to pray, to use the sacraments, to refuse birth control devices, to reject abortion, not to divorce and remarry if we believe it to be wrong.

Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) American politician
“Religious Belief and Public Morality,” John A. O’Brien Lecture, U. of Notre Dame (13 Sep 1984)
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Added on 20-Apr-15 | Last updated 20-Apr-15
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I believe we are descendid from the Puritins, who nobly fled from a land of despitism to a land of freedim, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but prevent everybody else from enjoyin his.

[I believe we are descended from the Puritans, who nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but prevent everybody else from enjoying his.]

Artemus Ward (1834-1867) American humorist, editor, lecturer [pseud. of Charles Farrar Browne]
“Is Introduced at the Club,” The Complete Works of Artemus Ward (1898)
Added on 2-Sep-14 | Last updated 2-Sep-14
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I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of enquiry into the religious opinions of others. on the contrary we are bound, you, I, & every one, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. we ought with one heart and one hand to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Edward Dowse (19 Apr 1803)
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From the dissensions among Sects themselves arise necessarily a right of choosing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform. But if we choose for ourselves, we must allow others to choose also, and so reciprocally, this establishes religious liberty.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Notes on Religion (Oct 1776)
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Modern rendering. Original:

From the dissensions among sects themselves arises necessarily a right of chusing & necessity of deliberating to which we will conform, but if we chuse for ourselves, we must allow others to chuse also, & to reciprocally. This establishes religious liberty.
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One of the amendments to the Constitution … expressly declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Kentucky Resolutions, draft (1798)

In protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Added on 13-Sep-12 | Last updated 25-Apr-22
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Christ’s religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree that it is thus supported is a millstone hanged about its neck.

George W. Truett (1867-1944) American minister, writer, and religious leader
Speech, steps of the US Capitol (1920)
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The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 16-17 (1947) – majority opinion
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See Jefferson.
Added on 18-Oct-11 | Last updated 29-Dec-21
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The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal.

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Autobiography (1821)
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Referring to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786).
Added on 11-Apr-11 | Last updated 4-Apr-22
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Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1 Jan 1802)
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Added on 3-Dec-10 | Last updated 29-Dec-21
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The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.

John Leland (1754-1841) American Baptist minister, civil libertarian
A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia (1845)
Added on 17-Jun-09 | Last updated 31-May-19
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I don’t say I’ve got much of a soul, but, such as it is, I’m perfectly satisfied with the little chap. I don’t want people fooling about with it. ‘Leave it alone,’ I say. ‘Don’t touch it. I like it the way it is.’

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Anglo-American humorist, playwright and lyricist [Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
Joy in the Morning (1947)
Added on 27-Apr-09 | Last updated 5-Sep-19
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[I]t is contrary to the principles of reason and justice that any should be compelled to contribute to the maintenance of a church with which their consciences will not permit them to join, and from which they can derive no benefit; for remedy whereof, and that equal liberty as well religious as civil, may be universally extended to all the good people of this commonwealth.

George Mason
George Mason (1725-1792) American statesman, Founding Father [George Mason IV]
Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)
Added on 1-Nov-07 | Last updated 10-Jun-15
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That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

George Mason
George Mason (1725-1792) American statesman, Founding Father [George Mason IV]
Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776)
Added on 21-Sep-07 | Last updated 10-Jun-15
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