Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

The Constitution, the First Amendment, and Religious Liberty

Clock One 50-minute class period

In this lesson, students will learn how leading Founders and religious dissenters contributed to religious liberty in America. Students will analyze primary source documents concerning the relationship between church and state, assess arguments for and against an established religion and a public role for religion in civic life and gain an appreciation for the philosophical and political process of the American experiment in religious liberty.

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.


A dramatic shift in thought and law took place between 1776 and the end of that century that culminated in America’s “first freedom”: that of religion. Between 1776 and 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, together with religious dissenters such as the Baptists, ushered in a new era of religious liberty through letters, conversations, and political advocacy. In his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Madison opposed taxing the people in order to support churches. He also shepherded Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom through the state legislature. The efforts of these men gradually inspired other states to disestablish state churches where they existed.


“We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In the enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” - George Washington, letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore (1793)

“As God is the only worthy object of all religious worship, and nothing can be true religion but a voluntary obedience unto his revealed will, of which each rational soul has an equal right to judge for itself, every person has an unalienable right to act in all religious affairs according to the full persuasion of his own mind, where others are not injured thereby. And civil rulers are so far from having any right to empower any person or persons, to judge for others in such affairs, and to enforce their judgments with the sword, that their power ought to be exerted to protect all persons and societies, within their jurisdiction from being injured or interrupted in the free enjoyment of this right, under any pretense whatsoever. . . .” - Isaac Backus, Baptist minister, “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in New England” (1779)


  • Understand how leading Founders and religious dissenters contributed to religious liberty in America.
  • Analyze primary source documents about the relationship between church and state.
  • Assess arguments for and against established religion and a public role for religion in civic life.
  • Appreciate the philosophical and political processes of the American experiment in religious liberty.


  • Essay: The Constitution, the First Amendment, and Religious Liberty
  • Handout A: A Connected Church and State
  • Handout B: A Separated Church and State
  • Handout C: A Public Role for Religion in Civic Life?
  • Handout D: A Conversation in 1785


Have students read Essay: The Constitution, the First Amendment, and Religious Liberty and answer the comprehension and critical thinking questions.

Activities 40 minutes

Activity I

  1. Divide the class into two groups. From the halves, further subdivide students into pairs or trios, making sure to have an even number of groups.
  2. Distribute Handout A: A Connected Church and State to one half, Handout B: A Separated Church and State to the other half.
  3. Within their groups, students will analyze four quotations relating to the relationship between church and state and then summarize the best arguments for their position.
  4. Once students have finished with Handouts A and B, ask students in a few groups to share the best arguments from their side.

Activity II

Distribute Handout C: A Public Role for Religion in Civic Life? Have students complete the Handout in their groups and then reconvene the class for a large-group discussion to answer the questions:

  • What kind of society or government are the speakers seeking to promote?
  • What value do the speakers see in a public role for religion?

Wrap-up 10 minutes

  1. Form new pairs with one student each who read Handout A and B.
  2. Have these new pairs complete Handout D: A Conversation in 1785 and begin writing a conversation between two or three citizens. Students should use Handouts A, B, and C to construct their dialogues. To guide student thinking, write or project the following questions on the board:
    • Which reasons for and against establishment of religion are most persuasive?
    • Is the question of establishment/non-establishment of religion a “black and white” one?
    • Does any public role for religion constitute an establishment of religion? If yes, why? If not, where is the line drawn?
  3. Have students complete their dialogues for homework. Next class, have students post their dialogues around the classroom and give students time to view them all.


    1. Have students create an editorial cartoon that illustrates his or her own position on the 1784 Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.
    2. Have students find a news article about an event that involves the relationship between government and religion. They should choose one article and answer the questions:
      • What are the facts of this situation?
      • What branch and level of government is involved?
      • What is the claimed constitutional issue?
      • Would late-18th century Americans view the issue differently than Americans today?
      • What is your opinion on the issue?

      Articles are available at


  1. The state of Maryland ended religious tests for public office only after the Supreme Court ruled in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961) that the practice was unconstitutional. Have students research the facts of the case, and write a summary of the arguments and an analysis of the court’s constitutional reasoning.
  2. Have student groups research a country with a strong church-government connection. They should create a short documentary to illustrate how life in that country is different from life in America.

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