advent of the Revolution
With the advent of the Revolution, New York and North Carolina quickly abolished their religious establishments, joining the ranks of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island. Granted, church establishments had never worked well in any of those former colonies (or had not worked at all), so disestablishment was not controversial. But none of these new states considered moving in the opposite direction toward increasing church-state ties, even though they were theoretically free to do so.
Most disestablished states retained other practices inconsistent with a modern understanding of separation, such as religious requirements for holding public office and participating in legal proceedings (i.e., oaths), official acknowledgments of religion, and religiously based sumptuary laws (e.g., blasphemy and Sabbath laws). Nonetheless, all states had taken the first steps toward separation; before long many had abolished other religious disqualifications they had retained from the colonial era. For example, in 1786 Pennsylvania liberalized its religious requirements for public officeholding, and its constitution of 1790 omitted earlier references to “Almighty God” as the source for republican government. The clear trend was toward liberalizing religious disqualifications.
Initially, the remaining eight states retained or reauthorized their existing structures of religious assessments and legal preferences for Christianity. By the end of the Revolution, however, even the formal Anglican establishments in Virginia and South Carolina had given way to “multiple establishments” where a taxpayer could have his assessment paid to his own church or, as was common in New England, to that church chosen by the majority vote of the parish. But this description does not indicate the ongoing dynamism in those states.
In 1786, Virginia rejected a bill to allow tax assessments for religious worship, adopting in its stead Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. By 1789, four additional states had abandoned their religious establishments (or had neglected to fund them), thus allowing them to die. The first Georgia and Maryland Constitutions had allowed for religious assessments but neither state instituted a system. Maryland voters rejected a proposed assessment in 1785, indicating a quick reversal of opinion, while a Georgia law of the same year apparently never went into effect. The new Georgia Constitutions of 1789 and 1798, respectively, removed the religious test for officeholding and abolished all assessments.
Although the 1778 South Carolina Constitution declared a “general establishment” of Protestantism, limiting church incorporation and public officeholding to Protestants, it inconsistently provided that no person could be compelled to support any religious body. As a result, South Carolina’s “establishment” amounted chiefly to a method of incorporating churches, and no church received public tax support. South Carolina’s Constitution of 1790 omitted the remaining reference to an establishment and removed earlier religious restrictions on public officeholding. Finally, Vermont in 1786 rewrote its constitution of 1777, reaffirming that “no man ought, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of his conscience,” but now removing a previous contradictory provision requiring “support” of public worship.