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The Constitution, the First Amendment, and Religious Liberty

40 min
  • 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.

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?

  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?

 

  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.