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Lesson Plan

This lesson is designed for Social Studies classrooms, grades 9-12

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:
  1. Describe the principles "separation of church and state" and "free exercise of religion" presented in the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Explain how legal principles found in those documents apply to current court cases and legal disputes.
  3. Analyze the historic role of diverse religious groups in American society.
  4. Conclude how religious diversity and toleration affect contemporary America.
  5. Summarize their findings and express their points of view in discussions, debates, simulations, and essays.

Related National Standards

U.S. History

Standard 4: Understands how political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.

Standard 12: Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period.

Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.

Standard 30: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.


Standard 9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional democracy.

Standard 10: Understands the roles of voluntarism and organized groups in American social and political life.

Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society.

Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

Parts I, III, and IV of this lesson would consume one 50-minute class period each. Part II requires at least two classroom periods and some homework.

Materials Needed

  • U.S. history textbook
  • Copy of the 1/3/03 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS roundtable discussion on religion and democracy. (Note: A free transcript of this story is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (
  • TV/VCR
  • Internet access, or copies of relevant pages
  • Optional Handout: Debate Rubric (PDF File)

Backgrounder for Teachers

The United States has a tradition of religious toleration based on First Amendment guarantees and broadened by court rulings and the experience of living in a pluralistic society. The quest for religious freedom drew many early settlers and continues to attract modern immigrants.

The January 3, 2003 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast features a roundtable discussion on religion and democracy. (See Materials Needed section for information on how to get a copy.) While some panelists on the religious roundtable are confident that America can absorb immigrants of diverse religious beliefs, others voice concern that such beliefs — especially those which seem to condone violence — will resist Americanization.

In this lesson, students will explore the legal underpinnings of our religious freedom and the contributions, both positive and negative, of various religious groups to American social and political life. In addition, they will see that both government's relationship with organized religion and protected religious activities are subject to change through litigation and the actions of government officials.

Teachers are encouraged to review biographical information on the NOW panelists to help them and their students assess a speaker's point of view. They are also encouraged to review resources on the NOW Web site related to this topic. While a U. S. history textbook may be sufficient to support many activities in the lesson, Web sites listed in this lesson's Related Resources section provide information on most subjects addressed in the teaching strategy.

Since questions involving protected religious activities and government's role in religion are divisive, teachers may wish to use this lesson as a springboard to observe future government actions affecting religion and court rulings related to religious conduct. Part III of this lesson shows that the Supreme Court has set precedents in many areas. However, as NOW panelists suggest, immigrants with diverse religious backgrounds and the zealotry of some Americans may pose new challenges to our legal system and our tradition of religious toleration.

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

While not completely necessary, it would be helpful if students understood the concept of "pluralism" and had some knowledge of First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and their practical applications to American life. It would also be helpful if students have some historical background on religious motivations that drew early colonists to the United States.

Teaching Strategy

Part 1 (meets objectives 1 and 5)

Panelists on the NOW roundtable agree that religious toleration is an important American tradition. Students will examine the legal sources of that tradition by analyzing the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" and the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

1. Begin the lesson by showing students a clip from the NOW religious roundtable discussion. Explain to students that the panel represents various perspectives and is discussing religion and democracy. Using the transcript to cue the video, show students a brief segment that includes one or more of the following quotations:

Philip Hamburger: "I think America actually is a remarkable model for the world, precisely [on account of] our religious diversity. This is a place where [right in the] 18th century there was an understanding that people of many different religions including religion other than Judaism and Christianity, can get along."
Michael Lind: "Traditionally, there have been two powerful traditions in the U. S. There's the enlightenment tradition and the Protestant reformation tradition."
Dr. Munawar Anees: "The American experience of religious pluralism and democracy, that mixture has historically proven to be unique anywhere in the world."
Depending on the quotation selected, briefly discuss with students what the panelist said and invite students to say whether or not they agree with the panelist and why.

2. Next, explain that the class will be exploring the origins of the "unique" U.S. tradition of religious toleration in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, a product of 18th century enlightenment. As author of the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom," Thomas Jefferson devised the principle "separation of church and state". Although Jefferson first drafted the law in 1777, it was not passed by the Virginia legislature until 1786 - and only after vigorous debate.

3. Read the statute. (See Related Resources for a transcript.) Ask students to surmise why the document was considered controversial in 18th century America.

  • What reasons does Jefferson give in the first section for preventing "legislators and rulers" from mandating a religion or religious practices? How does the section relate to "separation of church and state"?
  • The second section forbids government to prescribe religious beliefs and activities or to penalize believers for expressing their religious views. How would these provisions promote religious toleration? Why are they considered an important part of democracy?
4. The "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" is considered a precursor to provisions for religious freedom found in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Ask students to compare the First Amendment with the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom". Note that the First Amendment provision for religious freedom contains two parts: the Establishment Clause (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion) and the Free Exercise Clause (...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof). While the Establishment Clause means that Congress may not establish a state religion or use government funds to support religion, the Free Exercise Clause gives Americans the right to believe and practice religion as they wish.

5. Ask the class to brainstorm: Under the First Amendment, what types of religious practices are protected? Which religious activities — or activities in the name of religion — would be prohibited? [Hint: Panelist Jean Elshtain states, "There's a difference between vigorous advocacy (of religion) and criminal behavior."]

Part II (meets objectives 3 and 5)

A second American tradition is religious diversity. Thomas Jefferson recognized religious differences among Americans when he drafted the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom". NOW panelist Dr. Munawar Anees states, "The American experience of religious pluralism and democracy, that mixture has historically proved to be unique anywhere in the world."

In Part II, students will assess the historic impact of diverse religious groups by examining the actions of the Puritans, Quakers, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Ku Klux Klan (a quasi-religious group which manipulated religious symbols), and the Moral Majority. (NOTE: These groups were selected for additional study in this lesson because they affected American life in very different ways and at different times in our history.)

1. Divide the class into six teams. Each will conduct research on one of the six groups listed above. In their research, students should find out the major religious beliefs of the group, its social or political goals, methods used to achieve its objectives, and its contributions - positive or negative - to American society. (See Related Resources for Web sites for student research.)

2. Have each team report their findings to the class.

3. Ask students to draw conclusions: To what extent did religious groups improve life in America? What motivated some groups to commit acts of violence? Which methods for achieving goals were ultimately successful - violent or non-violent ones? Do students agree with NOW panelist Philip Hamburger, "...that it has been our religious diversity that has set the standard for religious toleration across the globe . . ."?

Part III (meets objectives 2 and 5)

How do interpretations of the Establishment Clause, or separation of church and state, affect us today?

1. Have students begin exploring that question by taking NOW's Freedom of Religion Quiz. In follow-up to the quiz, consider the following:

  • After checking their answers, student can compare religious activities that are protected or prohibited with the list they developed as a result of brainstorming in Part I.
  • From the definition of separation of church and state offered in question 1 of the quiz, and the number of court cases involving the Establishment Clause, students should note that interpretations of the First Amendment are always in flux.
  • The Virginia case on whether public schools can require a minute of silence to pray or meditate, Brown v. Gilmore, was decided by the Fourth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the Virginia law did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U. S. Constitution. However, it may be appealed to the full Circuit Court or to the U. S. Supreme Court. Have students form a mock Supreme Court to argue the case.
  • In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the case involving use of vouchers to attend private religious schools, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2002 that the Ohio voucher program is a neutral, private choice program that does not violate the Establishment Clause. Do students agree with that decision?
  • The last question on the quiz points out that politicians such as Senator Joe Lieberman and Attorney General John Ashcroft may talk about religion as part of their constitutional right to free speech. Do students agree with NOW roundtable panelist Jim Haught who said that religious talk by political candidates is "pandering and self serving"? Or do they believe that knowledge of a candidates' religious views aids voter choice?
Part IV (meets objectives 4 and 5)

NOW panelist K. Anthony Appiah says, "If you look at what happens to religious communities as they settled in this country over the last few hundred years, you get the sense that there is something that happens to most of them, a kind of Americanization. What happens is that when you come into the United States, your tradition fits itself alongside other traditions, and those traditions include practices of toleration." Yet other panelists fear that the recent influx of immigrants with diverse religious beliefs threatens American values and culture.

1. Ask students, "Do immigrants with diverse religious beliefs pose a unique threat to our American way of life?" In forming their answers, students should consider First Amendment protections of religious freedom, rulings of the U. S. Supreme Court, the historic activities of diverse religious groups in this country, and our tradition of religious toleration. Students may present their conclusions in a class discussion, essay, or debate.

Assessment Recommendations

Students may be assessed in several ways:

  1. You may assign points for substantive contributions to the brainstorming session and class discussions.
  2. You may evaluate mock trials and debates for substance and clarity of presentation. (A debate rubric is provided.)
  3. You may grade essays for organization, accuracy of information on American legal and religious traditions, and logical conclusions.

Extension Ideas

1. Be sure to review NOW's Starter Activities and Take Action ideas related to this lesson's topic. 2. Since religious tolerance is an ongoing challenge and legal interpretations of the First Amendment often change, teachers and students may want to:

  • Invite speakers of various faiths to address the class and answer questions.
  • Track court cases, such as Brown v. Gilmore.
  • Observe and discuss religiously-inspired public programs, such as President Bush's faith-based initiative.

Related Resources

The following resources will provide additional background and assist students in conducting research for this lesson. The NOW site has additional Web site recommendations that may be of interest.

The Donner Party: Call of the West
THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE describes the Mormons' settlement of Utah and their contribution to westward expansion.

Empire Upon the Trails: The Barren Rock (1806-1848)
Ken Burns' history of THE WEST discusses the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Mormons' settlement in Illinois, their persecution and subsequent trek to Utah.

Fatal Flood: People & Events
THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE describes the origin of the Klan in 1866 and its resurgence in 1915 to promote "fundamentalism and devout patriotism."

First Amendment: Court Allows Minute of Silence to Continue in Virginia Schools
The Center for Individual Freedom Web site describes the ruling in Brown v. Gilmore by the Fourth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals.

FRONTLINE: Apocalypticism Explained: The Puritans
Historian Paul Boyer explains the Puritans' rejection of the Church of England and vision for creating a righteous nation in New England.

God Fights Back: Religious Fundamentalism Flourishes in the East and West
The PEOPLE'S CENTURY relates the formation of the Moral Majority political movement with the Reverend Jerry Falwell as its spokesman. Includes audio interview with Christian fundamentalist, Carol Owen.

Joseph Smith (1805-1844)
Ken Burns' history of THE WEST provides a brief biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and description of the revelation which underlies Mormon beliefs.

Ku Klux Klan
This AFRICAN AMERICAN WORLD article provides a thorough discussion of the 19th century Klan as well as the 20th century Klan organized by Col. William J. Simmons, "a preacher and promoter of fraternal orders."

Liberty for All? Religious Tolerance
The FREEDOM: A HISTORY OF US Web site talks about the Puritans' persecution of other religious groups in Massachusetts Bay.

Liberty for All? Witch Fever
The FREEDOM: A HISTORY OF US Web site provides a brief description of Quaker beliefs and Puritan persecution of Quakers.

Martin Luther King
This AFRICAN AMERICAN WORLD article provides information on King's early life, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the letter from Birmingham jail, and the 1968 Poor People's March to Washington.

Online NewsHour: A Gergen Dialogue with Ralph Reed
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U. S. News and World Report, interviews Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed about his book, Active Faith. Reed points out differences between the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. He sees current Christian political activity as a continuation of Protestant religious revivals of the 1740s, 1830s, and 1890s.

Quakers & 19th Century Reform
This article describes the role of Quakers at the 1848 meeting on women's rights and alludes to their activities opposing slavery and promoting temperance, public education, Native American rights, and reform of prisons and asylums.

Statute of Religious Freedom, 1777
The Web site for the JEFFERSON series from Ken Burns provides the transcript of the "Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" and an image of the original document.

We Shall Overcome: A Different Kind of Fight
The FREEDOM: A HISTORY OF US Web site relates Martin Luther King's efforts to implement the 1964 Civil Rights Act in Selma, Alabama.

About the Author
Nancy Hall is a former educational writer and social studies teacher in the Fairfax County, Virginia, public schools. She is vice president of children's activities for the Opera Guild of Northern Virginia and a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children in Fairfax County. Nancy received a B.A. in history from Duke University and a Master's of Education from the University of Virginia. She writes educational lesson plans for PBS on a regular basis.

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