Religious Liberty: An American Experiment

Two Views of the Relationship of Church and State

In this lesson, students will explore the views of the founders concerning the relationship between Church and State. They will examine quotes from the founders regarding the relationship of Church and State, as well as analyze excerpts from primary source documents concerning this relationship.

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.


The American Revolution ushered in a dramatic shift in the relationship of church and government. In the American colonies, a majority (nine of thirteen) had official churches established by the government. The effects of established churches tended to affect individual rights and liberty negatively as citizens were required to pay taxes to support a denomination other than their own, attend services in the official church, and were banned from holding office by religious tests. The established churches in the colonies also tended to foster repression of religious minorities, who were often banned from preaching, were jailed for their beliefs, or suffered violence.

In 1776, with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and state constitutions with bills of rights, an immediate change occurred. Religious liberty was seen increasingly as an inalienable right of all humans and at odds with established churches. Some state constitutions disestablished their churches, some states stopped collecting taxes for the established churches, and much of the former repression ended. Over the next few decades, the established churches of the original thirteen colonies would all topple in favor of religious liberty for citizens of all beliefs about religion.

In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified including the First Amendment with its guarantee that the Congress could not create a national establishment of religion. State establishments of religion were not considered unconstitutional and continued to exist for four decades after the First Amendment. However, the general trend was for states to disestablish their official churches voluntarily as the movement for religious liberty continued to grow. The national debate over “separation of church and state” would be reignited after World War II especially by the Supreme Court especially over prayer in local schools, but the debate was rooted in the American Founding.


  • Read and discuss the founding documents related to the relationship of church and state.
  • Compare and contrast the eras in which states disestablished their official churches.
  • Compare and contrast the views of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regarding their understanding of the relationship between church and state through analyzing documents and scenarios.


  • Handout A: The Relationship of Church and State in America
  • Handout B: Quotes from the Founding about the Relationship of Church and State
  • Handout C: Map of Disestablishment in the United States
  • Handout D: George Washington, “Farewell Address”
  • Handout E: Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists”
  • Handout F: Scenario Cards

Background 15 minutes

A. Have students read Handout A: The Relationship of Church and State in America.



Activity I

  1. Prior to class, make posters of the passages on Handout B: Quotes from the Founding about the Relationship of Church and State, and post them around the room.
  2. Have students go around the room, read the quotes, and write whether the quote supports a close relationship between church and state or whether it supports a separate relationship between church and state.
  3. Assign students to pairs; have them compare and discuss their answers.
  4. Ask students to share their answers and discuss the differing views the Founders had regarding the proper relationship of church and state and of religion in the public square.

Activity II

  1. Students will color the map on Handout C: Map of Disestablishment in the United States to show when each state disestablished its official church.


Activity III

  1. Divide the class into two groups. Half the class will read Handout D: George Washington, “Farewell Address,” and the other half will read Handout E: Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists.”
  2. Each group of students will write a five- to ten-sentence paragraph answering the guiding questions on their respective handouts exploring the relationship between church and state.
  3. Pair the students up with a partner who read and completed the other handout. The partners will compare and contrast the views of Washington and Jefferson regarding the relationship of church and state.
  4. Choose groups to report on the differences and similarities regarding the views of the two Founders OR have the groups write a brief role play debating the views of Washington and Jefferson.
  5. Ask students the following questions:
    1. How do Washington and Jefferson differ in the proper amount of government involvement in promoting religion?
    2. Even though there are differences regarding the proper amount of government involvement in promoting religion, explain how both men then agree that the government must not violate freedom of conscience?



  1. After the students have filled out their maps, have students complete the questions at the bottom of the map and discuss as a class.


  1. Distribute a card to each group from Handout F: Scenario Cards and have them assess how Washington and Jefferson might have responded to the scenario based upon their views from Handouts D and E. Discuss the scenarios with the entire class.
  2. As a large group, discuss the questions:
    1. Did Thomas Jefferson use the principle of “separation of church and state” to keep religion out of the public square or to protect freedom of conscience?
    2. What role for religion did the Founders unanimously agree upon in a republic?
      1. To what extent did the Founders agree on the concept of religious liberty for all?


  1. Have students write a paragraph analyzing what they think is the proper relationship between government and religion in today’s society. Students should defend their answers with evidence.


  1. Have students go the Library of Congress online exhibit: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic and examine the documents in “Religion and the State Governments” and “Religion and the Federal Government.” Then, have students develop a chart of arguments for and against government involvement in religion.

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