Virginia, home to several controversial television evangelists, paid homage to its history of religious tolerance today by marking the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's Statute of Religious Freedom.
"There are those of the present generation who hold religious views of one variety or another," Gov. Gerald L. Baliles said in a noon ceremony at the Capitol, "but they should not remain oblivious" to the religious freedom of others.
Baliles said the statute, written by Jefferson, approved by Virginia in 1786 and the model for the religious provisions of the U.S. Bill of Rights, should be honored "not as (a relic) of the past . . . because it's a vital guidepost to the future."
In his campaign for governor last year, Baliles aired television ads that criticized his GOP opponent, Wyatt B. Durrette, for accepting support from the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, conservative founder of the Moral Majority.
Today, Baliles declined to criticize Falwell, shown by most recent public opinion polls to be one of the least popular persons in the state. "I just wanted to reiterate that . . . what applied in 1786 still applies to everybody," Baliles said during a reception in the governor's mansion.
Jefferson's statute declared that "all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinion in matters of religion and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities."
State Sen. Elliot S. Schewel (D-Lynchburg), who defeated a candidate backed by Falwell in 1983, said "it's a little troublesome" that Falwell seems to be better known than the Jefferson doctrine. "I'd like for Virginia to be known for that great document."
State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell of Alexandria, a moderate Republican, said Falwell is "a pretty good illustration of religious freedom" tolerated in Virginia.
Both Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson of Virginia Beach, who has said he may run for president in 1988, were invited to today's ceremony but declined, according to organizers. The event was recorded by a camera crew from Robertson's Christian Broadcast Network.
A white marble plaque, entitled "Almighty God Hath Created the Mind Free" and citing the Jefferson statute, was unveiled in the State Capitol rotunda. It will be hung in the House of Delegates chamber.
House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Bassett) caused the mostly solemn ceremony to break up in laughter when he took a little dig at the state Senate, frequently at odds with the House. Philpott noted that Jefferson's "truly great statute originated" in the lower chamber.
Baliles and others commented that Jefferson first drafted the religous freedom idea in 1777 -- nine years before it passed "against the dark history of religious strife."
A.E. (Dick) Howard, a constitutional scholar from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, noted that Jefferson and James Madison maneuvered to get the bill passed in Virginia by arranging to have Patrick Henry, an opponent, elected to the nonvoting position of governor.
Howard, leader of a group arranging the bicentennial celebrations of the U.S. Constitution, said courts will continue to struggle with issues of separation of church and state "against a rising tide . . . to accommodate religion."
In addition to the plaque, a citizen group is planning to build a memorial on a small James River island park near downtown Richmond.