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.

What Is the Significance of the Free Exercise Clause?

Clock 50 minutes

One of America’s most cherished freedoms is the free exercise of religion. In a nation where people of many faiths live side-by-side, the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects individuals from government interference in the practice of their faith. The government cannot target laws at specific religious practices or place undue burdens on its citizens’ worship. This lesson explores the free exercise clause and the many questions that arise from its enforcement.

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

One of Americans’ most cherished freedoms is the free exercise of religion. In a nation where people of many faiths live side-by-side, the First Amendment’s free exercise clause protects individuals from government interference in the practicing of their faith. The government cannot target laws at specific religious practices or place undue burdens on its citizens’ worship. But what happens when an individual’s exercise of religion breaks the law? Or when a government policy forces an individual or institution to choose between following the law and following his/her own conscience? What limitations, if any, can government place on the natural right to believe?

Objectives

Students will:

  • Explain the significance of the Free Exercise clause
  • Compare/contrast the Founders’ views about the free practice of religion
  • Assess various Free Exercise conflicts
  • Appreciate ongoing challenges to religious liberty

Materials

  • Handout A: Free Exercise Anticipation Guide
  • Handout B: Background Essay – What Is the Significance of the Free Exercise Clause?
  • Handout C: Ten Commandments on Public Property Scenario
  • Handout D: Restrictions on the Free Exercise of Religion

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 minutes the day before

  1. Have students complete the first column of Handout A: Free Exercise Anticipation Guide to determine if they believe the scenarios listed are constitutional or unconstitutional.
  2. Have students read Handout B: Background Essay – What Is the Significance of the Free Exercise Clause? Encourage students to think about the Critical Thinking questions at the end of the essay.

Warm-up 10-15 min.

  1. Have students complete the third column on Handout A: Free Exercise Anticipation Guide.
    1. Discuss whether the students’ opinions matched the Supreme Court opinions.
  2. Have students complete Handout C: Ten Commandments on Public Property Scenario.
    1. Hold a large group discussion about the case in the scenario. Have students support their answers with information about the case.
      1. What did the majority opinion state?
      2. What did the dissent state?
      3. Did Kentucky violate the Establishment Clause?

Activities 20-30 min.

  1. Distribute Handout D: Restrictions on the Free Exercise of Religion. Give students 4-5 minutes to complete the ratings individually, and then another 4-5 minutes to share with a partner.
  2. Reconvene the entire class (or use a response system) to determine which situations were most often considered least/most restrictive of religious liberty. If the class generally agrees about which examples are most or least restrictive, ask students why they think that is. If the class is split evenly between answers, have students discuss the reasons behind their answers.
  3. Once all situations have been reviewed, discuss the following questions:
    1. Were there any examples in which it was difficult to decide? Why?
    2. Is the Supreme Court the only institution that can resolve conflicts over free exercise? If so, why? If not, who else (or what else) can?

Homework

  1. Have students choose one of the cases discussed in Handout B and create a modified Briefing Sheet for the case that includes the following:
    1. Title of the Case
    2. Constitutional question raised by the law being challenged
    3. Arguments in favor of the law
    4. Arguments in favor of the individual claiming a violation of the right of free exercise
    5. How you would decide the case and why
    6. How the Court decided the case
  2. Have students survey their friends/family about their attitudes toward freedom of religion.
  3. Have students research parts of the world where the free exercise of religion is limited or nonexistent (e.g., parts of the Islamic world; communities in Europe where Sharia law prevails; Communist nations such as North Korea) and present their research to the class.
  4. Have students research free exercise issues related to the Affordable Care Act or any of the other contemporary questions raised in the last paragraph of the Handout B or have them visit http://billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/ to find and share recent headlines concerning freedom of religion. Student research should focus on how they personally will be affected by the answers to the questions.

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