Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago, Virginia successfully disestablished the Church of England and enacted legal protections for religious minorities. The text became the precursor to the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which begins with this text: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was so important, it became one of three major accomplishments that author Thomas Jefferson included on his tombstone.
Despite being the first thing named in the first constitutional amendment, there remains a lack of knowledge and understanding of this basic right among the public. Each year, the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center conducts a State of the First Amendment survey and reports on the findings. In last year’s survey, when asked to specify any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, only 29 percent of survey respondents named freedom of religion. (Perhaps more alarming, an equal percentage said they couldn’t name any right at all.)
The First Amendment and religious freedom are not outdated concepts; they continue to be argued in courts of law at all levels (this year’s Supreme Court docket features two prominent religious freedom cases). The Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center is dedicated to educating the American public about the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment. Learn more about the Center’s work here, where you can check out expert articles and watch past programs on matters of religious freedom. You can also sign up for the Newseum Institute’s e-newsletter to receive invitations to special events about religious freedom and other First Amendment topics.