January 16th is marked on some United States calendars as National Religious Freedom Day in commemoration of the acceptance of Thomas Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom by the Virginia General Assembly. In honor of this important occasion, Jewish Treats presents a recent event in the country’s history of standing up for religious freedom: The Williamsburg Charter.

Begun in 1986 and officially presented on June 25, 1988, The Williamsburg Charter was created as a reassertion of the importance of the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of religious freedom through both the “Establishment” clause and the “Free Exercise” clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).

As noted within the document:

Religious liberty is the only freedom in the First Amendment to be given two provisions. Together the clauses form a strong bulwark against suppression of religious liberty, yet they emerge from a series of dynamic tensions which cannot ultimately be relaxed. The Religious Liberty provisions grow out of an understanding not only of rights and a due recognition of faiths but of realism and a due recognition of factions. They themselves reflect both faith and skepticism. They raise questions of equality and liberty, majority rule and minority rights, individual convictions and communal tradition.

The committee that created this charter had many purposes in mind. Top among them was protesting the abuse of religion in the name of politics as well as stating the threat of hostility from non-religious elements toward religion and to the democratic ideals of America. The Williamsburg Charter was signed by 100 prominent personalities from politicians to journalists. Jewish organizations that were represented included the Foundation of Jewish Studies, the Synagogue Council of America, B’nai Brith, and the National Jewish Community Relations Council.

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