The Meaning of Religious Liberty in Virginia
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After 1776, the early American understanding of the free exercise of religion as a constitutional right developed in each of the states separately, but not in insolation, as they adopted, interpreted, and applied constitutional guarantees of that right. Virginia led the way by including a guarantee of the free exercise of religion in its 1776 Declaration of Rights, but it was not understood by all as eliminating its long-standing establishment of the Anglican Church. This issue was not settled until 1785 when a bill requiring all persons to be taxed to support the church of their choice was decisively defeated by petitions from dissenters and James Madison, who argued that the free exercise of religion prohibits all laws characteristic of religious establishments.