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George Mason's views on Separation of Church and State

Research and Writing by Tom Peters

Few men had more influence on the shaping of our Constitution than George Mason (1725-1792). As a member of Constitutional Convention, Mason was an outspoken advocate for federalism and limited government. As a member of the Virginia ratifying convention, he proposed a set of amendments that later served as a model for our Bill of Rights.

Of particular interest is Mason's commitment to religious liberty. Mason seems to have been a lifelong advocate of the rights of conscience, and worked diligently to end religious establishment in Virginia. In 1776, for example, Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which contained one of the first State guarantees of free exercise. Also in 1776, Mason drew up and introduced a bill into the Virginia Assembly which ended the practice of forcing dissenters to pay contributions to the established (Anglican) Church. The preamble to this bill is a classic summary of the principle of non-establishment:

Similarly, Mason played a key role in opposing Patrick Henry's 1785 Bill for the Support of the Teachers of the Christian Religion. In response to Henry's bill, Mason encouraged James Madison to author his famous Memorial and Remonstrance, then circulated copies of the Memorial throughout Virginia at his own expense. In an October 5, 1785 letter to Robert Carter, Mason declared that the Memorial "accords entirely with my Sentiments upon the Subject [of religious freedom]" (The Five George Masons, pp. 177). Mason then authored a petition against the bill that was signed by a large number of voters in his home county. Finally, Mason was an outspoken supporter of Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, which was adopted in 1785.

Mason's separationist commitments carried over to his advocacy of a Bill of Rights. In particular, his proposed amendments to the federal Constitution contain a provision that is closely modeled after the religious freedom provision in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and which explicitly mentions both "free exercise" and "establishment," the key subjects of the religion clauses of the First Amendment:

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