President Bush has asked Americans to observe "Religious Freedom Day" tomorrow, January 16. It was on this day in 1786 that the Virginia legislature passed the Ordinance of Religious Freedom, which disestablished the Anglican Church as the state church--but it simultaneously guaranteed that no person would be discriminated against or molested for his or her religious beliefs. The law gave Virginia complete religious freedom and was the model for the guarantees of religious freedom written into the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
The law was largely the fruit of the labors of Thomas Jefferson--he had worked for seven years to get the Virginia legislature to pass it. In the process, he often allied himself with Baptists and Presbyterians, who had endured much hardship from the lack of religious freedom in colonial Virginia. Jefferson was very proud of his role in this piece of legislation. Indeed, the three accomplishments he wanted carved on his tombstone were "Author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder of the University of Virginia, and Author of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom."