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The Establishment Clause — How Separate Are Church and State?

60 min


  • Students will explain the historical origins of religious liberty in America
  • Students will analyze the Founders’ understanding of the relationship between church and state
  • Students will analyze religious practices in their schools
  • Students will apply the principles of the Establishment Clause
  • Students will evaluate and assess the constitutional reasoning behind Establishment cases
  • Students will appreciate the enduring legacy of the Founders’ commitment to religious liberty

  1. Briefly review with the students the key points and/or the critical thinking questions from Handout A.
  2. Display the possible examples of religion in public schools from Handout B: Religion at My School.
  3. Ask for a show of hands (or use a clicker response system) to count the number of students who checked each example. Ask students to share any additional examples.
  4. Briefly discuss the topic of “Religion at My School” by asking the following questions:
    1. Does religion affect our school a little? Somewhat? A great deal?
    2. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with the role of religion in our school? Does it matter?
    3. Do the examples (if there are any) of religion in our school violate the Establishment Clause?
    4. If you attend a religious or homeschool, what do you know about the experiences of your public school friends?

  1. Divide the class into pairs. Ask for volunteers to read (with expression) each of the scenarios from Establishment Clause Scenarios.
  2. After each scenario is read, ask the class: Is this law or rule establishing a religion?
  3. Give students a minute or two (working in pairs) to complete the graphic organizer, Handout C: Interpreting the Establishment Clause.
  4. Once all scenarios have been reviewed, discuss the following questions:
    1. What were the differences and similarities between the constitutional viewpoints of the Founders, the Supreme Court, and you in deciding whether or not these situations violated the Establishment Clause? What might be the reasons for those differences?
    2. If the First Amendment creates a “wall of separation” between church and state, what type of religious expression—if any—is constitutionally permitted in public settings?
    3. If the First Amendment creates a “picket fence” separating church and state, what types of religious expression might be permitted?
    4. In your opinion, what is the best “test” for determining whether or not a law violates the Establishment Clause? Why?

  1. Have students write a 2-3 paragraph, first-person narrative based upon one of the individuals from the Establishment Scenarios on Handout C. The narrative should present the individual’s constitutional justification for his/her position under the Establishment Clause.
  2. Have students use “textspeak” to create a 140-character “Tweet” summarizing the significance of the Establishment Clause.
    1. The name of the case
    2. The constitutional significance of the case
    3. A graphic to illustrate the case
    4. Ask for volunteers to combine all the slides into a class presentation about the Establishment Clause. Have each student research one of the cases referenced in the essay and create one Powerpoint (or Keypoint or Prezi) slide containing:
  3. Have each student research what, if anything, individual Founders said about the role of religion in public life and then share their research with the class.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

What Is the Significance of the Free Exercise Clause?