Religious Liberty: An American Experiment
First Amendment Principles and Jefferson’s “Wall”
One 50-minute class period
In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment changed in light of the Fourteenth Amendment. They will also analyze Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, evaluate the Supreme Court’s application of Jefferson’s metaphor about the wall of separation between church and state, and assess how much weight should be given to Jefferson’s letter in determining the constitutionality of state action with respect to religion.
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
Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
In his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, written on January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson articulated his belief that the legitimate powers of government reach “actions only and not opinions.” He went on to explain his view that the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” This metaphor is so widely known that it is sometimes believed to be part of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has often used Jefferson’s letter as a key source for interpreting both religion clauses of the First Amendment, holding that the letter can be accepted “almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.” But some critics have argued that the Court has effectively substituted the wall metaphor for the actual text of the First Amendment. The debate about the wall metaphor—whether a “wall” exists and, if so, where it should stand and how high it should be—continues to this day.
“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.” - Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry (1799)
“[T]he individual’s freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority.” - Justice John Paul Stevens, Wallace v. Jaffree (1985)
- Understand how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment changed in light of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Analyze Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
- Evaluate the Supreme Court’s application of Jefferson’s metaphor.
- Assess how much weight should be given to Jefferson’s letter in determining the constitutionality of state action with respect to religion.
- Essay: First Amendment Principles and Jefferson’s “Wall”
- Handout A: Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association
- Handout B: Neither Snow Nor Rain (optional)
Have students read Essay: First Amendment Principles and Jefferson’s “Wall” and answer the questions.
Warm-up 10 minutes
- Write on the board the following quotation and have a student read it aloud. “Civil Government cannot let any group ride roughshod over others simply because their ‘consciences’ tell them to do so.” – Justice Robert H. Jackson, 1943.
- Ask students what they think is meant by the term “consciences.” (Examples might include beliefs, moral code, ethics, sense of right and wrong.)
- Working as a large group, have students brainstorm examples of how individuals or groups have acted according to their consciences or religious beliefs to further their goals. Keep a running list on the board. (Examples might include Abolitionists, the Ladies Temperance Movement, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints polygamists, anti-abortionists, and peace activists.)
- Have students select one individual or group from the list on the board and list specific actions they took. (Examples might include peaceful actions like picketing, distributing leaflets, and prayer chains; physically confrontational, but passive, activities such as forming human barriers; or violent resistance and physical aggression.)
- Ask students if they think these individuals or groups, who were acting according to their consciences, should have been prohibited by the government from acting on their beliefs. Why or why not? Is there a point past which an individual’s right to act according to religious belief ends? If so, how should that point be defined?
Activities 30 minutes
- Ask for a show of hands of students who have heard the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.” Ask those who have heard of the phrase where it comes from. (Do not correct wrong answers at this point.)
- Ask for a show of hands of students who have heard the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Ask those who have heard of the phrase where it comes from. Let students know the phrase comes from the First Amendment, and that the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” was used in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson when he was President. (Roger Williams, of Rhode Island, also used the metaphor more than a century earlier.)
- Ask students—what are the purposes of metaphors? What are some of their advantages? (e.g. They are more easily understood by more people) Disadvantages? (e.g. They may tend to oversimplify complex ideas).
- Distribute Handout A: Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Have students read both letters and work with a partner to discuss and answer the questions.
- Reconvene the class and ask students to share their responses.
Wrap-up 10 minutes
Conduct a large group discussion to answer the questions:
- Did anything in either letter surprise you?
- What are some reasons that Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association might be considered an authoritative source on the meaning of the First Amendment?
- What are some reasons it might not be considered an authoritative source?
- How might citizens, lawmakers, and judges approach the task of understanding the First Amendment?
- Next class, hold a structured debate on the question of how much weight should be given to Jefferson’s letter as a source for interpreting the First Amendment. To prepare, have students underline information from the background essays as well as conduct their own research. Next class, hold a fishbowl debate. Give student pairs made of one student from each side three to five minutes in the fishbowl to make one main point; rotate new pairs in as time allows.
- Divide students into six groups and give each group a copy of Handout B: Neither Snow Nor Rain. Assign a Mail Delivery Problem to each group and have them formulate a Post Office Policy for that problem.
Have students watch JFK’s speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (11 minutes) at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/ALL6YEBJMEKYGMCntnSCvg.aspx. Then conduct a large group discussion to answer the questions:
- Why do you think Kennedy found it necessary to address a group of Protestant ministers during his campaign?
- What historical documents and events does Kennedy refer to in his speech? Why do you think he included these?
- How does Kennedy address concerns about a potential conflict between personal conscience or religious beliefs and national interest?