Washington’s famous letter on religious liberty under lock-and-key

I’ve read SO many times over the years about George Washington’s famously eloquent letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island.

The 1790 letter is famous for spelling out what religious liberty in the U.S. would mean: “For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In 1781, Washington had visited Newport and a meeting was held at the synagogue.

The Forward today put out a fascinating article about the letter’s whereabouts.

It turns out that the letter is held under lock-and-key, removed from public view, at an industrial park in Maryland.

Apparently, a fellow named Morris Morgenstern who grew up on the Lower East Side and became a successful financier and philanthropist, purchased the letter around 1949. A foundation in his name loaned the letter to the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, which lets few people see it.

Very strange.

Paul Berger from the Forward got to see it. But it wasn’t easy.

The letter is now said to be worth between $5 and $10 million.

The Newport congregation, called Touro Synagogue, was founded in 1658 by the first Jewish arrivals to North America. Touro is still going strong today and will host an annual reading of Washington’s letter on Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. (reservations required).

You can read the whole letter here.

‘Under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s’

Just checking in after finally crawling out of my sick bed.

I’ve had something — Swine flu? — since Thursday. Whatever it is, don’t get it.

I don’t have any idea what’s been going on, but a few emails about the Manhattan Declaration caught my attention.

Looks like it could open a new round of the Culture Wars.

It’s a no-sense, strongly worded statement from Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical leaders that basically says they will give no ground when it comes to abortion, marriage and religious liberty.

The statement urges nothing less than civil disobedience if it comes to that.

You should read it for yourself. But here’s a piece:


Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non­believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.


And here’s the sword-waving close:


Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 4, Peter and John were ordered to stop preaching. Their answer was, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. There is no more eloquent defense of the rights and duties of religious conscience than the one offered by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Writing from an explicitly Christian perspective, and citing Christian writers such as Augustine and Aquinas, King taught that just laws elevate and ennoble human beings because they are rooted in the moral law whose ultimate source is God Himself. Unjust laws degrade human beings. Inasmuch as they can claim no authority beyond sheer human will, they lack any power to bind in conscience. King’s willingness to go to jail, rather than comply with legal injustice, was exemplary and inspiring.

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo­destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti­life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

European Union measure would ban discrimination based on religion or belief — or would it?

The European Union is considering an “Equal Treatment Directive” that would prohibit discrimination “on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation outside the areas of employment and vocational training.”

The United Kingdom is collecting opinions.

What would the directive cover?


This directive would ensure equal treatment across the four strands (age, sexual orientation, religion or belief and disability) in the areas of social protection, including social security and health care; education; and access to and supply of goods and services which are commercially available to the public, including housing and transport. This applies to both public authorities and private sector bodies providing goods and services.


But Catholic bishops in several countries are concerned about “possible unintended consequences which would have the effect of limiting the right of the Church and its members to act in accordance with Catholic belief…”

The Christian Institute in the UK warned that the directive could interfere with religious liberty and free speech, and could stop churches from restricting membership to those who share their beliefs.

If passed, the directive would take precedence over domestic laws in all 27 EU countries.