The Bill of Rights and Religion

Explores the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause, including studies of the Founders’ understanding of both. The unit explores the constitutionality of government action relating to religion as well as the relationship between the government and religious institutions. The unit also investigates instances where “free exercise” and “establishment” might conflict.

The Establishment Clause — How Separate Are Church and State?

Clock 60 minutes

The original thirteen states that formed the United States included individuals from a variety of religious traditions. To ensure that the national government respected freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious practice, the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from either establishing a national church or interfering with existing state religions. Since then the Supreme Court has created various “tests” to determine if government practices violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This lesson explores the history and principles behind this clause.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Overview

The thirteen states that came together to form the United States included individuals from a variety of religious traditions. To ensure that the national government respected freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious practice, the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from either establishing a national church or interfering with existing state religions. Since then, the Supreme Court has created various “tests” to determine if government practices violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, these “tests” have not been consistently applied, creating controversy about how best to understand the meaning of the Establishment Clause.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Explain the historical origins of religious liberty in America
  • Analyze the Founders’ understanding of the relationship between church and state
  • Analyze religious practices in their schools
  • Apply the principles of the Establishment Clause
  • Evaluate and assess the constitutional reasoning behind Establishment cases
  • Appreciate the enduring legacy of the Founders’ commitment to religious liberty

Materials

  • Key Terms
  • Handout A: Background Essay – The Establishment Clause: How Separate Are Church and State?
  • Handout B: Religion at My School
  • Handout C: Interpreting the Establishment Clause

Standards

  • NCHS (5-12): Era III, Standards 3B, 3C; Era IX, Standards IB, 4C; Era X, Standard 2C
  • CCE (9-12): IIA1
  • NCSS: Strands 1, 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background 10 min. the day before

  1. Have students read Handout A: Background Essay – The Establishment Clause: How Separate Are Church and State? Encourage students to think about the critical thinking questions at the end of the essay.
  2. Ask students to complete Handout B: Religion at My School. If time allows, brainstorm other examples of religious practices at their school.

Warm-up 15-20 min.

  1. Briefly review with the students the key points and/or the critical thinking questions from Handout A.
  2. Display the possible examples of religion in public schools from Handout B: Religion at My School.
  3. Ask for a show of hands (or use a clicker response system) to count the number of students who checked each example. Ask students to share any additional examples.
  4. Briefly discuss the topic of “Religion at My School” by asking the following questions:
    1. Does religion affect our school a little? Somewhat? A great deal?
    2. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with the role of religion in our school? Does it matter?
    3. Do the examples (if there are any) of religion in our school violate the Establishment Clause?
    4. If you attend a religious or homeschool, what do you know about the experiences of your public school friends?

Activities 20-30 min.

  1. Divide the class into pairs. Ask for volunteers to read (with expression) each of the scenarios from Establishment Clause Scenarios.
  2. After each scenario is read, ask the class: Is this law or rule establishing a religion?
  3. Give students a minute or two (working in pairs) to complete the graphic organizer, Handout C: Interpreting the Establishment Clause.
  4. Once all scenarios have been reviewed, discuss the following questions:
    1. What were the differences and similarities between the constitutional viewpoints of the Founders, the Supreme Court, and you in deciding whether or not these situations violated the Establishment Clause? What might be the reasons for those differences?
    2. If the First Amendment creates a “wall of separation” between church and state, what type of religious expression—if any—is constitutionally permitted in public settings?
    3. If the First Amendment creates a “picket fence” separating church and state, what types of religious expression might be permitted?
    4. In your opinion, what is the best “test” for determining whether or not a law violates the Establishment Clause? Why?

Homework

  1. Have students write a 2-3 paragraph, first-person narrative based upon one of the individuals from the Establishment Scenarios on Handout C. The narrative should present the individual’s constitutional justification for his/her position under the Establishment Clause.
  2. Have students use “textspeak” to create a 140-character “Tweet” summarizing the significance of the Establishment Clause.
  3. Have each student research one of the cases referenced in the essay and create one Powerpoint (or Keypoint or Prezi) slide containing:
    1. The name of the case
    2. The constitutional significance of the case
    3. A graphic to illustrate the case
    4. Ask for volunteers to combine all the slides into a class presentation about the Establishment Clause.

    Additional religious liberty cases can be found at http://billofrightsinstitute.org/religiousliberty/cases/

  4. Have each student research what, if anything, individual Founders said about the role of religion in public life and then share their research with the class.
    1. A good place to begin their research is: http://billofrightsinstitute.org/resources/educatorresources/founders/

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