Endorsing the critical need for religious freedom, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve joined 100 national leaders June 25 in signing the Williamsburg Charter at the First Liberty Summit.
The document was drafted to reaffirm religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which in part reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."A summary of the charter notes that religious freedom is a "precious, fundamental and inalienable right . . . not based on the shifting moods of majorities and governments."
The summary continues: "The No Establishment clause in the First AmendmentT separates Church from State, but not religion from politics or public life. It prevents the confusion of religion and government, which has been a leading source of repression and coercion throughout history."
Of the 100 who signed the charter, there were eight, including Elder Oaks, who represented "American faiths" and were invited to make one-minute statements supporting religious liberty and explaining what it has meant to their groups.
"The people called Mormons," said Elder Oaks prior to affixing his signature to the document, "have known the sting of official repression and the lash of popular fury. We endorse the need and join in this celebration and reaffirmation of religious liberty."
He quoted the 11th Article of Faith: " `We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.'
"In our nation's founding and in our constitutional order," added Elder Oaks, "religious liberty is the motivating and basic civil liberty."
The signing ceremony was held at the historic courthouse in Williamsburg, Va., with about 2,000 people present. The master of ceremonies was former CBS newscaster Eric Sevareid. Dr. Billy Graham delivered the keynote address.
Goals of the charter are to reaffirm freedom of conscience, celebrate the uniqueness of the First Amendment and articulate the legitimate place of religion in public life, pointed out Os Guinness, executive director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation.
The charter summary notes that it is important that religious views be voiced in the public arena, saying repression of any "voice" is damaging to a democracy. But it emphasizes that debate should be respectful, saying that "how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical."
Guinness and others who drafted the charter said the notion of separation of church and state is sometimes misconstrued to mean churches should remain silent on moral or political issues.
"The First Amendment has worked as a regulatory valve, easing frictions arising from differing opinions, but the valve is now choked," said Guinness. "Historically, democracy in the United States has depended on religious beliefs. . . ."
The summit was held in Williamsburg because it was there, two centuries ago, that George Mason and James Madison had drafted the portion of the First Amendment relating to freedom of religion.