Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013)

In this lesson, students will study the Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013). They will examine the facts of the case and analyze the arguments made on both sides through primary source documents and preceding cases. They will then assess the majority and minority decisions for the case.

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


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

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.


The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment has, for a long time, meant that the government is required to make accommodations for religious beliefs. In Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Court upheld the right of plaintiff Adell Sherbert, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who worked in a textile mill, to claim unemployment benefits when she refused to take a job requiring her to work on the Sabbath. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court held that a state’s interest in educating children past 8th grade was outweighed by the parents’ free exercise of their religion.

In Sherbert, Justice Brennan declared that “The door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious beliefs.” In Yoder, Chief Justice Burger wrote that “The traditional way of life of the Amish is not merely a matter of personal preference, but one of deep religious conviction…and intimately related to daily living” and that the law “affirmatively compels them, under threat of criminal sanction, to perform acts undeniably at odds with fundamental tenets of their religious beliefs.” He concluded that “an intrusion by a State…would give rise to grave questions of religious freedom.”

But what if government requires a family-owned corporation to fund insurance for medical services that violate that family’s religious beliefs? This question proved controversial for the Supreme Court and continues to be debated in the public square.


  • Read and discuss the founding documents related to free exercise of religion.
  • Examine and analyze primary source documents related to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013)
  • Evaluate, based on the documents examined, the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013)
  • Write a response paper addressing the central question of the case.


  • Handout A: Case Background and Central Question
  • Handout B: Document Analysis Continuum
  • Documents for Lesson:
    1. First Amendment
    2. Madison’s On Property
    3. Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
    4. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013), Majority Opinion
    5. Other Court decisions referenced in opinion: Sherbert (1963), Yoder (1972)
    6. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013), Dissenting Opinion
    7. Affordable Care Act (ACA) text and HHS Guidelines
    8. Political cartoons


  1. Post or project the Central Question on the board so that it is visible as students arrive in the classroom.
    1. Central Question: Do the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Act of 1993 prohibit an executive agency from requiring a family who owns a corporation to provide full insurance coverage for services that violate their religious beliefs?
  2. As students arrive, point out the question and instruct them to write a single-sentence response to the question. Indicate one corner of the classroom as “Absolutely Yes” and the opposite corner as “Absolutely No.” Instruct students to stand and walk to a point in the classroom that indicates their response to the question. They may choose “Absolute Yes”, “Absolute No”, or any point between the two that indicates “where they stand” on the question.
    Once students have walked to their positions, ask individual students to explain why they “took the stand” that they did. Announce that they will be examining some founding documents and a Supreme Court case and, armed with further information, be revisiting that question. Tell students that their job is to be prepared to refer to those documents in order to independently write a paper addressing the central question of that Supreme Court case.


Activity I

  1. Review the Case Background. Discuss each part of it, asking probing questions to check students’ understanding and to ensure that they understand its central ideas before reading and analyzing the documents for this lesson.
  2. Distribute copies of Documents A and B (First Amendment and Madison’s On Property) to each student. Before reading each document, look together at the related critical questions for each. Then, read each document and respond, in group discussion, to the critical questions.
  3. Assign students to groups of three or four. Distribute copies of Document C (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) to each student. Have them to read it with their partners, using the related Critical Questions to guide their analysis, and then to formulate a written response to each question.
  4. Distribute copies of Documents D – H to each student to examine independently, writing their answers to the questions.
  5. Provide a copy of Handout A: Document Analysis Continuum graphic organizer (on the following page) to each student. Divide the class into five groups and assign each group to discuss their individual analysis of documents as follows: Group 1: Document D; Group 2: Document E; Group 3: Document F; Group 4: Document G; Group 5: Document H. Each group should designate a spokesperson. Have each group draft a summary of their assigned document, discuss their responses to the questions, and indicate where their assigned document belongs on the continuum.
  6. Next, have the spokesperson from each group come to the large, projected image of Handout A, share the group’s responses to the questions, and mark where they placed the document on the continuum. After all of the groups have presented, invite other students to ask clarifying questions, offer alternative responses, or challenge other answers. Be prepared to offer your own clarifying questions to ensure that students are synthesizing their understanding of Documents A – C into their analysis of Documents D – H.
  7. Ask students the same question asked at the start of class, indicating the same “Absolute Yes” and “Absolute No” corners, as well as the space in between. Invite students whose answers shifted to explain what evidence caused them to alter their responses to the question.

Activity II

  1. Have students write a response paper that addresses the Central Question:
    1. Do the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Act of 1993 prohibit an executive agency from requiring a family who owns a corporation to provide full insurance coverage for services that violate their religious beliefs?


  1. Have students work individually, or in pairs or groups of three, to take on the role of James Madison and use Word, PowerPoint, or Prezi to create an imitation Twitter Chat between Madison and the writers of Documents C – G. What might Madison say in response to the key ideas presented in each of those documents?
  2. If time allows, students should present their Twitter Chat slideshows in class. Consider offering bonus points to presentations that refer to thinkers who influenced the United States founders, or that include hashtags that distill key ideas in relevant constitutional principles.

Give Feedback

Send us your comments or questions using the form below.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.