Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court

Clock One 50-minute class period

In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of how the doctrine of incorporation broadened the application of the First Amendment. They will also gain an understanding of the facts of landmark Establishment Clause Supreme Court cases, evaluate arguments about the scope of the Establishment Clause, and assess the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment with respect to religion in public schools.

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 U.S. Supreme Court fulfills its constitutional role by deciding cases arising under the U.S. Constitution. Its rulings guide the federal court system and affect the lives of every American. The meaning of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion has been debated and reinterpreted by the Court. Originally, Bill of Rights protections only applied to the federal government, but many were later incorporated by the Supreme Court to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. With state governments limited by the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, court challenges to state laws by those who believe their religious rights have been infringed have increased—as has debate about the amendment’s scope and limits. Because public schools are government-funded, they are often the focus of Establishment Clause cases.

Quotes

“[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty.” - Benjamin Rush, Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1786)

“A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.” - Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Objectives

  • Understand how the doctrine of incorporation broadened the application of the First Amendment.
  • Understand the facts of landmark Establishment Clause Supreme Court cases.
  • Evaluate arguments about the scope of the Establishment Clause.
  • Assess the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment with respect to religion in public schools.

Materials

  • Essay: Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court
  • Handout A: Key Question
  • Handout B: Document-Based Question
  • Handout C: Organizing Documents

Background

Have students read Essay: Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court and answer the questions.
Note to teacher: This essay focuses on the Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause, and public schools.

Warm-up 10 minutes

  1. As a large group, go over the answers to the comprehension and critical thinking questions from the Essay.
  2. Distribute one or both of the key questions on Handout A: Key Question. Note: You may choose to have the whole class do the same key question or have half the class work on each. Have students work with a partner to read and discuss the key question.

Activities 40 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout B: Document-Based Question as well as Handout C: Organizing Documents. Students should record their initial response to the Key Question on Handout C, and record their response again after carefully reviewing the documents.
  2. Depending on students’ background knowledge, literacy skills, and familiarity with document-based questions, you may choose to:
    • Have students work individually to complete Handouts B and C together and write their essays for homework.
    • Have students work in pairs to complete Handouts B and C together and write their essays in class next time.
    • Assign three documents from Handout B to each pair of students. Have them complete the corresponding sections of Handout C, and then jigsaw to form new groups made up of one student each who reviewed each document. Essays can be written for homework or in class next time.
    • Read the documents on Handout B and go over the scaffolding questions and Handout C as a large group. Essays can be written for homework or in class next time.

Homework

Have students write a detailed outline and/or their essay in response to the Key Question. Emphasize to students that they should not try to predict a “correct” answer, or predict what the Court would likely do. Rather, they should evaluate each document and develop their own reasoned argument.

Extensions

  1. Have students read the Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools published by the U.S. Department of Education. Have them compile a list of questions they still have regarding the relationship between church and school. Have students write a letter to the appropriate official with their questions or consult with your school district’s legal counsel for answers.  www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html
  2. If you chose to have half the class write a response to each scenario, have students work in pairs to discuss the differences between the two scenarios. List two ways the scenarios differ. Are these differences significant enough to change their constitutional implications?

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