Today we take it as an "inalienable right" that Americans have the freedom to worship however we please - or to choose not to worship at all, if that's our personal preference. One Internet joke illustrates the flexibility of American religious thought:
At the start of the American Revolution, however, the Anglican Church had been "established" in the colony of Virginia since Jamestown was founded in 1607. One of the first actions by the settlers when they landed initially at Cape Henry was to erect a cross - you can still see a replica there today.
In 1775, Virginia's gentry were well-entrenched in Anglican institutions. The gentry controlled appointments to the vestry of each parish, which set the county tax rates for social welfare (caring for orphans, the indigent, and others unable to support themselves). The parish taxes provided funds for the Anglican minister's salary and maintenance/replacement/expansion of the church buildings. They were collected by the county sheriffs, just like taxes imposed by the county courts.
Today, the members of the county courts are known as county supervisors and elected by the local citizens, and there is a "wall of separation" between church and state activities. The Constitution was ratified without an overt statement regarding religious liberty - but in the First Congress, James Madison led the effort to amend the document to fulfill promises made in the Virginia ratification convention. Today, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights still says:
The Supreme Court is faced with the challenge of interpreting the scope of the First Amendment. What funding can be provided (perhaps via vouchers) to private schools with a religious affiliation, may the mayor put a Christmas tree in front of city hall, how much teachers can support/regulate prayer in public schools, whether a copy of the Ten Commandments can hang on the wall of courtrooms, can high school football games start with a prayer... the words written in Virginia 200 years ago are still essential to American culture today.
Virginia was the leader in establishing religious freedom over two centuries ago, but produced leaders that edged close to mixing the affairs of church and state. Anti-Catholic bias did not disappear from Virginia with passage of the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom." Nancy Astor, a native of Virginia and the first woman elected to serve in the English Parliament, expressed it when she said Hitler's Germany was entitled to rearm before World War II because it was "surrounded by hostile Catholic powers."1
In the last two decades, two religious leaders in Virginia have been key players in Republican politics at a national level. Rev. Pat Robertson led the Christian Coalition from his base of operations in Virginia Beach, while Rev. Jerry Falwell led the Moral Majority from his base of operations in Lynchburg.