Freedom of Religion: The First Amendment

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Lesson At A Glance

This is the third lesson of twelve in a year-long unit exploring the history of the US Constitution in 11th grade US History.  This lesson on religion is an in-depth exploration of the free exercise and establishment clauses of the first amendment.  This lesson was taught during the first curricular unit which focuses on the foundation of US History (colonization to Civil War).  


  • Students understand the difference between the establishment and free exercise clause of the first amendment.
  • Students explore landmark Supreme Court cases regarding Freedom of Religion.
  • Students will demonstrate their understanding of expression and exercise through application on sample cases.
  • Students will demonstrate their understanding of religious liberty by writing an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in the case of Elk Grove School District v. Newdow.

Standards Addressed: 

History Social Science

Students analyze the role religion played in the founding of America, its lasting moral, social, and political impacts, and issues regarding religious liberty.

 Describe the principles of religious liberty found in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment, including the debate on the issue of separation of church and state.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Grades 11-12  Students

Key Ideas and Details:

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account.

2. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

7. Evaluate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.

Essential Questions/Issues:

  • Why are the constitutional protections to Freedom of Religion essential to our democracy?
  • How can citizens ensure their religious liberty is protected?

Higher Order Thinking Questions:

1.  Evaluate recent Supreme Court decisions regarding religion.  Do you agree or disagree with the court’s findings? (Evaluate)

2.  Is reciting the pledge of allegiance a violation of a person’s religious liberty? (Application)


Students will be evaluated through informal checks for understanding, teacher observation, and written performance on the amicus curiae brief. 

Click here to download the assessment tools.

Activity Steps:

Click here to download activity steps

Purpose Teacher Students
(20 Minutes)

Teacher asks students following questions one at a time:

  1. Why aren't students allowed to bring weapons to school?
  2. Are there ever times when students should be allowed to carry weapons?
  3. Could prohibiting weapons in school ever be a violation of someone's rights?

Teacher asks students to respond to questions on paper and then discuss with a partner. Teacher calls on students to answer and takes a quick survey (thumbs up/down) on questions #2 and #3.

Teacher passes out "Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Concerning Rights of Baptized Sikh Students to Wear Symbolic Ceremonial Knives to School Thursday, June 12, 1997"

Teacher asks students to think about and respond to the following questions:

  • Did the extending of religious freedom to Sikh children deny others their rights? Why or why not?
  • Was our democracy strengthened or weakened by this decision?

Students respond to questions on their paper and when called on by teacher.

Students read "Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Concerning Rights of Baptized Sikh Students to Wear Symbolic Ceremonial Knives to School Thursday, June 12, 1997".

Students write their responses to the question.

(60 Minutes)
Teacher will ask the students what rights are protected in the first amendment. Teacher will review the first amendment protections (speech, assembly, press, petition and religion).

Teacher will review the historical context of the Freedom of Religion from colonization to the beliefs of the founding fathers (Madison, Jefferson, and Henry.)

Teacher asks students if debate on religious freedom still relevant today.

Teacher asks students to consider the following questions:

  • What rights do parents have when making medical decisions for their children?
  • Should a parent be prosecuted if they deny medical treatment to their children?
  • What if a procedure was medically unnecessary, yet the parents performed procedure for religious purposes

Teacher passes out "San Francisco's Circumcision Ban: An Attack on Religious Freedom?"

Teacher surveys class (thumbs up/down or through online polling system) on the following question:

  • Is San Francisco's proposed ban on circumcision a violation of the first amendment?

Teacher reviews the two clauses of freedom of religion:

Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

Free Exercise Clause: "…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Teacher asks students

  • Are both clauses necessary to the protection of American democracy?

Teacher provides example of violations of each clause: establishment clause – teacher leads prayer during class time; exercise clause – students banned from praying at school.

Teacher passes out "You Be The Judge" and assigns the students to work in groups of 3-4 to complete. Teacher walks around assisting students as they complete the matrix.

Teacher calls on groups share their responses for each case and teacher reveals the "answers" based on the Supreme Court decisions.

Students will answer "what rights do citizens have under the first amendment?"

Students take notes on historical context.

Students respond to questions and think, pair, and share with neighbor.

Students read article.

Students respond to question.

Students respond to question

Students work in small groups to discuss each case and complete the matrix.

Student groups share their responses and discuss whether the Supreme Court got it "right."

(20 Minutes)

Teacher passes out last case, "To Pledge, or Not To Pledge." Students are asked to read the case.

Teacher explains that they are going to be acting as attorneys for the Religious Liberty Foundation. It is an organization established to ensure that our religious freedoms are protected. They have been asked to represent the Foundation and write an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court who has just agreed to hear this case.

Teacher explains that an amicus curiae brief is written by a person or an organization that is not directly affiliated with a case but has an interest in the case. The brief is intended to convince the court to rule in favor of one party or the other. The students will research the case and prepare a written response to the question:

  • Does the reciting the pledge of allegiance, which includes the words "under God," in school violate a student's first amendment rights?

The teacher explains that if they answer yes they will be writing their brief on support of the respondent, Michael Newdow. If they do not believe it is a violation, they will write their brief in support of the petitioner, Elk Grove School District.

Teacher passes out guidelines for preparing brief and reviews with students.

Students read and annotate case as they read.

Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson:

  • Students with special needs are considered by assigning students to work with heterogeneous groups. The online polling is another strategy as it is anonymous.
  • The written assignment can be modified to meet each student's needs, both in length and format.
  • GATE students can be required to research and include prior Supreme Court rulings to cite in their brief as precedents.

Extension Ideas:

  • Have students research current religious freedom cases.
  • Have students prepare a guide for school administrators on protecting students' freedom of religion while at school.

Materials and Resources:

  • PowerPoint Presentation:  Freedom of Religion
  • Settlement Reached in Lawsuit Concerning Rights of Baptized Sikh Students to Wear Symbolic Ceremonial Knives to School Thursday, June 12, 1997
  • San Francisco's Circumcision Ban: An Attack on Religious Freedom?
  • To Pledge or Not To Pledge...
  • Freedom of Religion Matrix
  • Amicus Brief Directions


Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here

Outline of Unit Plan:

Unit Title: Re-writing the Constitution for the 21st Century – A Year Long Examination of the United States Constitution, its Foundation and Interpretation Over Time.