Standing in Cannon Memorial Chapel on the University of Richmond's rolling campus, Fred Anderson held up what looked like an old leather-bound book.

"I hold in my hand a rusty piece of iron and a key," said Anderson, the official historian of Virginia Baptists. "And if Baptists had sacred relics this would be our equivalent of hair from a saint's head."

On this rainy morning, we had gathered to commemorate a bright interval in the somber history of religious oppression -- the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, passed by the Commonwealth's legislature in 1786.

The lock displayed by Anderson had been used to incarcerate several Baptist preachers more than 200 years ago, for religious practices contrary to the Anglican religion "by law established." Anderson recalled a remarkable scene from a century ago. A speaker at a similar commemoration had turned the old key in the lock. When the rasping sound rang out, many wept, moved by the memory of suffering for conscience's sake, on American soil.

For good reason, the Virginia Statute was one of three accomplishments Jefferson wished to be remembered for on the obelisk that marks his grave at Monticello. (The presidency was not among them.)

Jefferson, as usual, had his priorities straight. A law asserting the radical equality of all religious preferences was a novel idea in the world of 1786, even in the land of the Declaration of Independence. It was a first, an original.

The statute embodied the dream of Jefferson (and his younger confederate, James Madison, who saw the bill to passage in Jefferson's absence) that the troublesome incest between government and religion migh be ended forever. It was, Jefferson asserted in a rare burst of passion, impious to think that man might usurp God's function: "Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . (and) being Lord of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate (religion) by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do." Why then did fallible man presume to do what the Creator declined to do?

Speaking later on this day of commemoration, Sen. Lowell Weicker noted that Americans have spun a pleasantly self-flattering myth. It is that religious persecution was an Old World practice, left on the shores our ancestors fled.

In fact, Jefferson's statute was a response to specific acts of persecution. Baptists, who insisted on conducting unlicensed meetings, were the main victims but not the only ones.

In 1774, Madison had written to a college classmate that, even in Virginia, the "hell-conceived principle of persecution" had taken hold. In the next county, "not less than five or six well-meaning men are in jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox."

It took imagination to see evil in the routine reaction, even in mild Virginia, to challenges to established legal authority. And it took persistence and political craft to remedy it.

The Virginia Statute, a part of Jefferson's comprehensive post-revolutionary "revisal" of Virginia laws, was mainly couched in his usual cool and lofty appeal to reason. It was the first act by any legislative body to guarantee religious freedom -- not in the form of "toleration" (which implied a superior grasp of truth, and was subject to arbitrary exceptions), but as an absolute natural right. It went beyond mere sufferance to place all beliefs, however odd, on equal footing before the law. In this it was radically original: a leap of the moral imagination to a farther shore.

And today? You don't have to be sharp-eyed to see that thebearing of this Virginia legacy, and of its unmistakable echoes in the First Amendment, continues to be disputed. Everyone subscribes to the sentiments. But what is their practical meaning? Jefferson might pronounce it "sinful and tyrannical" to tax a man for the propagation of beliefs not his own. But does that mean no tax subsidies for parochial schoolbooks?

The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom neither settled nor foreclosed debate about religious pluralism. It was the world's first important assertion of the idea. It looked far beyond the conventional church/state practices of the day to an entirely new plan for accommodating and tempering religious conflict. For that we owe our thanks, if not a few tears.