Church and State Separation: The Challenge and Debate
Grade level: 10-12
Subjects: U.S. Government, Civics
The United States Constitution's First Amendment prohibits the government from favoring a specific religion or passing legislation to establish an official, national religion. This clause is known as the separation of church and state. Because of the clause's vague language, there is an interpretive element that has resulted in myriad legal battles. Some of the most recent center on issues such as abortion, school prayer, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, same-sex marriage, and the right to die. These challenge the Supreme Court to make sometimes controversial decisions as it deciphers the clause in order to protect individuals' freedom of religion rights. These issues are likely to arise during the 2004 presidential election, as well.
- Describe the basic elements of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment as it relates to the separation of church and state and freedom of religion;
- Speculate on the probable constitutional issues and debates associated with the separation of church and state clause;
- Test their knowledge of religious freedom regarding separation of church and state;
- Review and debate arguments regarding the legal conflicts centered on current church and state separation.
Computers with Internet access
Chalkboard and chalk
Chart paper and markers
Video of Flashpoints USA God and Country (recommended but not required)
NOW with Bill Moyers: Freedom of Religion Quiz http://www.pbs.org/now/quiz/quiz2.html
Copy of the First Amendment
United States Constitution
Bill of Rights
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Copy of First Amendment: An Overview
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.
Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the "separation of church and state. Some governmental activity related to religion has been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. For example, providing bus transportation for parochial school students and the enforcement of "blue laws" is not prohibited. The free exercise clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a persons practice of their religion.
(Excerpted from: Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute)
Recent Supreme Court cases/issues centered on separation of church and state (refer to Web resources).
4-5 classroom periods (with students conducting some research beyond the classroom)
Teaching Strategies and Activities
1) Write SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE on the chalkboard. Ask students to consider what this term means; if they are already familiar with it, ask them to provide its origins and explain its purpose. Give them five-10 minutes to jot down their thoughts. Invite students to share their notes.
2) Explain to students that this clause has its base in the United States Constitution's First Amendment. Distribute the handout First Amendment: An Overview to the students. Have them read it silently and then, based on the clause's description, ask students to speculate on what issues and challenges the clause poses, particularly from a legal perspective.
3) Have students take the "Freedom of Religion Quiz" to test their basic understanding of separation of church and state (and/or "What Do You Know About the Separation of State and Church?" http://www.ffrf.org/quiz.html. Conduct either as a class or individual student activity.)
4) Once students have checked their responses against the correct answers, have them consider the difficulties courts have when making decisions regarding separation of church and state conflicts, particularly when debating the essence of freedom of religion. What might be the major pro and con arguments? How does the government decide what impedes religious freedom and when religion should be restricted? How can a state Supreme Court rule on an issue, and where does the U.S. Supreme Court figure in when religious freedom/church and state laws are put in place?
5) Invite students to further examine the challenges associated with the clause by looking at Zelman v. Simmon-Harris, in which the Supreme Court ruled that tuition vouchers are constitutional, a landmark church-state decision. Research sites include:
6) Divide students into small groups. Assign per two groups one different current issue regarding church and state separation, particularly those discussed in the Flashpoints USA. Some topics to consider are (students can research others):
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school (because of the reference to God)
Displaying the Ten Commandments in public places
- Same-sex marriage
- Abortion/right to life
Ask students to review the issues/cases associated with the topics in response to the following questions (these may be distributed as a handout).
- What is the issue?
- What is its relationship to the church and state separation clause and freedom of religion?
- What are the principal arguments?
- What is the stance of those who support the issue?
- What is the stance of those against the issue?
- What does the Supreme Court need to consider in order to make a "constitutional" ruling? If it has already made a decision, how did it rule and what was its rationale?
- What, if any, is the role of state Supreme Courts in the issue? Has there been a law passed that could be overruled by the U.S, Supreme Court?
7) After students have completed their research, instruct the two groups to take on a pro or con perspective regarding their assigned issue, and to debate the issue in the mock role of a 2004 presidential candidate.
History of Religious Liberty in America
What do the words of the First Amendment mean?
First Amendment Center
NOW with Bill Moyers: God and Government
Religious Freedom Amendment
Church and State Separation Issues
Hot Religious Topics
NOW with Bill Moyers: Faith Based Initiatives
Not first church and state dispute
Religion in The Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law
Supreme Court Cases
Recently in the Courts
Religious Freedom/Separation of Church and State
Quiz: What Do You Know About the Separation of State and Church?
NOW with Bill Moyers: Freedom of Religion Quiz
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
2: Understands the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited governments
4: Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve, and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government
8: Understands the central ideas of American constitutional government and how this form of government has shaped the character of American society
9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy
13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity
15: Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power
17: Understands issues concerning the relationship between state and local governments and the national government and issues pertaining to representation at all three levels of government
United States History
8: Understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
31: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States
About the Author
From classroom instructor to an executive director, Michele Israel has been an educator for nearly 20 years. She has developed and managed innovative educational initiatives, taught in nontraditional settings in the U.S. and overseas, developed curricula and educational materials, and designed and facilitated professional development for classroom and community educators. Currently operating Educational Consulting Group, Israel is involved with diverse projects, including strategic planning and product development.