The Bill of Rights: Protecting Individual Liberty or the Corporate Franchise?

David Trimble has an interesting essay on Bishop Lee’s remarks to the Virginia Diocesan Council. At Council the bishop said, ““If the attorney general’s view of the law prevails, it will mean that the Commonwealth of Virginia gives preference to churches with congregational governance, discriminates against churches that are hierarchical or connectional in their governance, and intrudes into the doctrine and discipline of communities of faith.” The bishop asserts that religious liberty, in the context of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment protects hierarchical churches – which is so absurd it shows an incredible lack of understanding about the context of religious freedom in the Commonwealth and in the United States.

As David rightly points out here, those freedoms are individual liberties, not protection for corporate entities that seek to overwhelm and impose a system of beliefs on individuals – especially when they have departed their own historical documents. “Religious liberty in the United States is all about individual liberty – the freedom to not be coerced by designation of a state religion,” David writes, “and the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice. Period. Read the First Amendment and that’s all you will see. It has absolutely nothing to do with hierarchical vs. congregational governance whatsoever.”

It is important that we read these statutes ourselves and not rely on others to tell us what we to think. The same think applies to the scriptures – which is why we are in this mess in the first place. A biblically literate laity is a fearsome thing to clerics, bishops and clergy alike. At the same time, constitutional literate citizens are equally fearsome. The bishop appears to think that Virginians have forgotten about Patrick Henry and George Mason and Thomas Jefferson and do not known their own history in the Commonwealth, nor have they read either the Virginia or the the United States Constitutions lately. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. We ignore those things at our own peril. But one can be certain the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia knows knows his history and knows what those historical documents say and mean and it’s his job to defend the Constitution and Statutes of the Commonwealth of the Virginia.

What makes American history – and Virginia history – so extraordinary in those founding documents was that our founders recognized (and sometimes after fierce debate) that our rights are secured as individuals, not to the class, the organization, the group or associations we belong to. There are no implied trusts in Virginia. We threw off the chains of slavery and when we found there were still more in chains, those were thrown off as well by force. “It is for freedom Christ came to set us free,” and Virginia has learned the hard way that some are not more equal than others. There is no “in club,” no “upper class,” no hierarchy that can impose its will and take those freedoms away. No, not even the Episcopal Church. It is not the “freedom of the church,” Bishop Lee – it’s the freedom of individuals to worship freely. He scorns the freedom of individuals when he warns the Diocesan Council that the Attorney General’s actions will cause “the Commonwealth of Virginia gives preference to churches with congregational governance.” Congregational governance means liberty for the individual. Bishop Lee should be ashamed to publicly twist the meaning of the guarantee of our individual religious liberty to mean a guarantee of state-protection for corporate institutional entities over the constitutional rights of individuals – as if.

We can only imagine what Mr. Jefferson would say about that.

Read David Trimbles’ essay here.