Freedom of religion: The conflicts, compact, and wall of separation

In studying the fascinating early national period, the students to date have focused on two major tensions in the new United States—how power was to be distributed between the federal government and the states and how the interests and powers of the large and small states could be “balanced.” They explored how the compromises used to resolve these debates resulted in our current governmental structure and in the protections embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The students had been introduced to the rights and restrictions on government action included in the Bill of Rights.

In class discussions, the students identified the experiences which gave rise to concerns about tyrannical powers of a strong central government and to the specific abuses of criminal and civil rights in the colonies The students connected those concerns and abuses to the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights and, prior to the Amendments’ passage, to the rights set out were in state constitutions, created years before the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

When discussing the origins of most of the First Amendment rights, students easily have identified the causes of the concerns for and abuses surrounding the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly in the pre-revolutionary period, but when asked about what would have given rise to the freedom of religion, their responses seemed to be limited to the fourth grade social studies experience—that many settlers left Europe because they could not practice their religions there (Confirmed by entrance card responses).

This lesson seeks to give them greater understanding of the conflicts and tensions underlying the inclusion of the provisions pertaining to religion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights based upon colonial and state governmental practices concerning religions. The goal of the lesson is for the students to be able to identify some of the American context for the years of controversy over what the Constitution’s religion provisions restrict and permit. Just as they understand that the protections of the Bill of Rights, established over two hundred years ago, are regularly applied to new questions and new situations, whether those protections concern civil rights of speech or privacy or criminal rights, they also will be able to see why the questions of what the separation of church and state permits is a live issue.

Lesson Objective

Describe the experiences; laws and practices that gave rise to the religion-related articles in the Constitution and Bill of Rights by completing a written assignment.



  1. Day 1
  2. Begin the class with a flipchart that asks them to consider the connections between: (1) the experiences of living under British rules and (2) the ideas that the new states had put into their own Constitutions and into laws which seemed to influence the rights that were written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
  3. Students should complete an entrance card: “Why do you think the Americans included rules and rights concerning religion in the Constitution and Bill of Rights?” (most referred to the experiences in England and with the King, as the head of the church and the country, and the desire for religious freedom in the new homeland.)
  4. The next flipchart page provides the text of Article VI of the US Constitution. The students read the text, respond first to a question about what it meant and then to one about why it would have been in the Constitution. In the class discussions, students likely speculate that the final provision was based on some type of religious requirements applicable to member of the Church of England.
  5. The next flipchart page provides information about the Test Acts in the 17th- early 19th centuries and their exclusion of Catholics, non-Anglican Protestants, and non-Christians from government jobs in Britain.
  6. Discuss the substance and effects of the Test Acts. Then review the language of the Sixth Amendment and discuss why religious tests might still have been a concern in the United States, serious enough to be included in the Constitution.
  7. Then shift to the Bill of Rights and the language of the First Amendment. Acknowledge their statements about people seeking to get away from the constraints of the Church of England. Ask what else might have been going on in the states to make them want to include such language in the Bill of Rights.
  8. Show a flipchart with a picture of “A sermon preached before the honorable Council, and the honorable House of Representatives, of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England, at Boston, May 27, 1778.” Ask what they “noticed” and share ideas out with the whole group– then and what the sermon was. Raise questions about why a prominent minister would have given a sermon, which one would expect to hear in a church, to a legislative body.
  9. Look over excerpts of the text from the Sermon (on flipchart). While the text is dense, expect them to note references to God, to gospels, to worship and the preservation of churches—surprising in a talk directed to legislators.
  10. Discuss the significance of the Congregation denomination and its prominence in Massachusetts and what Payson, the sermon-giver was seeking from the legislature.
  11. Question: who might have a different point of view—students likely will suggest that other religious groups would have different views given the concern with having an Official religion.
  12. Look at an image of a pamphlet “Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed” by Issac Backus. Ask students to pose ideas about what kinds of practices Backus might have objected to and then read the summary which notes the basis for the Baptists’ opposition to state support of the churches. (The Baptists believed that churches should receive no support from the state in part because state support of religion corrupted the churches. Backus and other Baptist leaders agreed that religion was necessary for social prosperity and happiness, but they believed that the best way for the state to assure the health of religion was to leave it alone.) Discuss how a religious conflict might have presented itself—and expect various ideas that might be categorized fairly as religious oppression—and confirm that at various times and locations, those practices did occur.
  13. Day 2
  14. Review of Day 1 – You learned that the early settlers came to the colonies in order to practice their own religions and . . . for some, to be able to hold positions that they could not have held in England because of the religious tests required to hold a government job. That did not mean that those who created the new nation respected all religions equally . . . In Massachusetts, you saw that a minister was delivering a sermon (a religious talk) to the Massachusetts legislature. Review some of what he was saying, why he was there? What other connections were there between the churches and the government according to the objections to the practices.
  15. Look at flipchart of Baptist Minister Leland’s objections and the Massachusetts Constitutions’ declaration of rights and provisions for the use of tax revenues to support locally selected ministers and local congregations.
  16. Show “A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Explain that Massachusetts was not alone in these practices, though the restriction on employment and the state support of churches varied—see state notes on flipchart page. However, the conflict produced different results in other states.
  17. The next few pages of flipcharts show how Patrick Henry sought state support of religious teaching and how vehemently James Madison opposed it—provide students with an opportunity to read portions of “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” and Madison’s response in “Memorial and Remonstrance.” While displaying the magnitude of Madison’s objections and some of the substance, it likely will be necessary to limit the time spent on this dense document.
  18. The discussions of the debate and the substance of the Memorial and Remonstrance will lead to how Madison and his allies championed Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786, which severed the links between government and religion and led to the religion provisions in the First Amendment.
  19. Provide excerpts of the Act—including the last section, which refers to the separation as part of the natural law– and the First Amendment—discuss the contents of both.
  20. Provide Jefferson quote regarding the wall of separation between church and state, in response to a proposal for a day of prayer and fasting and note current use of Jefferson’s term. Refer to cases—ex. prayer in school– that have sought to clarify what the wall does and does not permit—make sure that the students understand how “state” refers to all publicly funded activities.


Jefferson stated that the American people had decided to separate religion and government in the First Amendment? Why did the American people include that decision in the Constitution?


“Test Acts.” Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project. (accessed March 16, 2012).

“Religion and the State Governments.” From the Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. (accessed March 15, 2012).

“Disestablishment Lesson Plan: Historical Scope, Primary Source B Congregationalism in Massachusetts.” (accessed March 15, 2012).

Wallingford, Todd. “John Adam’s Views on Citizenship: Lessons for Contemporary America. Massachusetts Historical Society. (accessed March 14, 2012).

Madison, James. “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” 1785. Religious Freedom, from the Library of the University of Virginia. (accessed July 27, 2012).

“Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (annotated transcript). The Story of Virginia: An American Experience. The Virginia Historical Society. (accessed July 27, 2012).

“The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Religious aspects.” (accessed July 27, 2012).

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