Home Video Lesson Plans Timeline Glossary Resources About
Technology-rich, standards-based lessons for upper elementary and middle school
Religion and the first Amendment


Procedures for Teachers

Introductory Activity:
  1. Ask students if they know what the First Amendment says, what document is it a part of, and how it establishes and protects religious freedom. Point out that the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, is the first of 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which are referred to as the Bill of Rights. Note that the First Amendment is often invoked in disputes involving issues of religious freedom.

    Distribute Student Handout 1: The First Amendment and read it with students in detail, noting especially the following points:

    • "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, ..." Point out that the word "respecting" in this clause does not refer to respect in the sense of esteem or recognition. "Respecting" here means "in regard to" and the sense of the clause is: Congress does not have the power to legislate what religion people will practice. This clause, called the "no establishment" clause, keeps government from imposing religion on people.

    • "... or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- This clause means that people have a right to freely exercise their religious beliefs and practices, and Congress can not make laws that prohibit people from doing so. Americans have freedom to worship as they see fit -- to practice any religion or no religion at all.

    This section lists other rights that the Congress cannot deny or diminish. These are:

    • freedom of speech;
    • freedom of the press;
    • the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Point out: "Petition" means "ask for" and "redress" means "correction" or "repair." When people gather to demonstrate their disapproval of a government action or a law, they are exercising their right of assembly.)

    Note: Students interested in reading the entire Bill of Rights can find it at the following site: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: Constitutional Amendments 1-10 -- The Bill of Rights.

  2. Explain to students that in this lesson, they will be learning more about religious freedom. On the chalkboard or a flip chart, write the term religious freedom. Ask students to think about how religious freedom affects them. Tell them that you will ask them to call out terms they associate with the idea of religious freedom and you will write them down, without discussion. (Examples might be: believe what you want, prayer, separation of church and state.) Proceed with the activity. If no one thinks of it, add "First Amendment" to the list and remind students that the First Amendment is related to freedom of religion.

    Keep the list on display so you can refer back to it if you wish.

  3. Tell students that the First Amendment provides a framework that allows people of diverse religions to co-exist peacefully within one society. Everyone's right to believe as they choose must be respected, even by those who may disagree with another's beliefs.

    Distribute Student Handout 2: The 3Rs. Explain that these basic principles about religion in education were developed as part of the Williamsburg Charter, a document signed by over 200 religious and educational leaders at the bicentennial in 1976. Read each of the three points on the handout with students, discussing the meaning of each one. Points for discussion include:

    • In "Rights": The meaning of the word "conscience." As defined by The American Heritage Dictionary, it means "conformity to one's own sense of right conduct."

    • In "Responsibility": The meaning of the term "civic responsibility." The Service Learning Network ( looks at civic responsibility in the following way:
        Civic responsibility -- addressing social problems in an informed, committed, and positive manner -- is not an intuitive process. Young people must learn how to participate in a democracy. They need to be able to understand their community and its institutions, to develop decision-making and evaluative skills, to learn the ins and outs of public policy, and to know the value of service.

    • In "Respect": The meaning of the word "civility." As defined by The American Heritage Dictionary, it means "courteous behavior; politeness."

  4. Tell students that they are going to be learning and talking about issues related to freedom of religion, particularly as these issues apply to Islam, a religion whose numbers are growing in America.

    • What are some reasons why it is worthwhile to talk about religion and religious freedom?

    • Why might people feel uncomfortable talking about religion?

    • What can we do to make it safe and comfortable for everybody in this class to talk about religion?

    Use the last question to lead into the establishment of class guidelines for talking about religion. Write "Guidelines" on a flip chart and list students' ideas. Make sure that the guidelines include some form of the following:

    • Treat each other with respect.

    • No put-downs.

    • Listen without interrupting.

    • In talking about your own religious beliefs, it is OK to state or describe. It is not OK to try to convince or persuade.

    • If you are expressing an opinion, state it as such: "In my opinion ..." or "I think that ..."

    • Respect each person's right to choose not to share his or her beliefs and ideas about religion.

    Teachers may find the following source useful:

    A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools
    A detailed guide for public school educators that clarifies the distinction between teaching religion and teaching ABOUT religion.

Learning Activity 1: Prayer and Religious Freedom
Muslim Prayer

  1. Explain to the class that they will be watching a video about "Muslim Prayer." Ask them to think about the 3Rs as they watch the clip. Play the video.

  2. Following the video, discuss any of the following:

    • What challenges might prayer cause for practicing at school or at work? (Possible answers: Having to stop at specific times to pray; not having privacy.)

    • What constitutional rights do they have that might address these challenges? (The First Amendment protects their right to observe the practices of their religion.) What about others for whom regular prayer might be important: for instance, those who say grace at meals?

    • Is it constitutionally appropriate for public schools to lead students in religious activities? What about those students who have no religious beliefs? What are the limitations on public expressions of religion? What are some instances in which public religious practices or references might violate some people's conscience? (Note: Teachers can, for example, allow students to pray, but may not lead them in prayer. The establishment clause in the First Amendment also protects those with no religious beliefs.)

    • For Muslims and others, daily prayer is a ritual. What are some other examples of religious rituals? What about non-religious, or secular, rituals? Why do you think people incorporate rituals into their lives?

  3. Distribute Student Handout 3: Prayer and the First Amendment. Ask students to work in pairs or groups of three to read the items on the sheet and choose one to discuss in depth. Allow about ten minutes. Then ask each group to report out to the class on what they discussed and where they arrived in their discussion.

Learning Activity 2: Religious Festival -- Ramadan
Ramadan Observance

  1. Introduce the video "Ramadan Observance" to the class. Ask the class to think about the First Amendment protection of religious freedom as they watch. Play the video.

  2. After watching the video, discuss any of the following:

      a.) Why, according to the First Amendment, is your school allowed to teach ABOUT Ramadan? What is the difference between "teaching ABOUT religion" and "teaching religion"?

      b.) What difficulties might be experienced by someone who is fasting when others around them are not?

      c.) Do you know of other religions that incorporate the practice of fasting or impose dietary limitations? (Examples: fasting on Yom Kippur in Judaism; abstaining from favorite foods during Lent for some Christians.)

      d.) Observing dietary rules is a form of religious practice and is protected by the First Amendment. What are some ways in which you have seen religious dietary practices respected or disrespected? Examples are: choices of meals on airplanes (respect); lack of meatless alternatives at social events (disrespect).

    Note: For item (a) above, it may be useful to talk about the following distinctions, quoted here directly from A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools:

    • The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.

    • The school strives for student awareness of religion, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion.

    • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.

    • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.

    • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion.

    • The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief.

Learning Activity 3: Controversy -- Muslim Burial Ground
Exploring Religious America

  1. Tell the class that they are going to watch one more video clip, called "Exploring Religious America," which tells the story of a controversial Muslim cemetery and how, through compromise, it came to be built. Before students watch the video, pre-teach the following vocabulary:

      Secular -- Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body

      Atheist -- One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods

      Agnostic -- One who is doubtful or noncommittal about the existence of God or gods

      Denomination -- A subgroup of a major religion that has its own particular set of beliefs and practices; e.g., the Baptists and Lutherans are two different denominations of the Christian faith.

      Evangelism -- Preaching and dissemination of religious ideas and text in order to convert people to a particular faith, as through missionary work

      Proselytize -- To attempt to recruit or convert someone to a group, movement, religion, or other belief

    Then distribute Student Handout 4: Exploring Religious America Viewing Guide. Read over it with students and direct them to attend to the points listed and take notes as they watch the video.

  2. After showing the segment, ask students to take a few minutes to free-write any additional thoughts and reactions. Then, discuss with the class the issues raised in the segment. For older/more advanced students, four discussion questions are on Student Handout 5: Religious Diversity. NOTE: Before beginning this discussion with your students, be sure to read A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools published by the First Amendment Center.

Learning Activity 4: Map It

In part because of the freedom of religion granted to all Americans by the First Amendment, the United States is home to many religious institutions of great diversity. This religious diversity demonstrates the significance of the First Amendment.

Using the phone book and Web-based resources such as Yahoo, Google, and Mapquest, students can create a map of their town or a nearby city in which they indicate the locations of all houses of worship and other religious facilities. They can do the same for another town in their state, preferably a sizable one.

Discuss students' findings: How many different religions are represented? Were there any surprises?

As an extension of this activity, students may want to delve into the history of a particular building. (Often, what was once a church then became a mosque, etc.) Local historical societies, heads of local churches, and the Internet are all good sources of information.

Culminating Activity
  1. Students can make collages that represent their understanding of constitutionally protected freedom of religion in our religiously diverse nation. They can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups. This activity can be done either in class or as homework.

  2. To help students get ideas for their art projects, refer to the religious freedom idea list they created at the beginning of the lesson. Is there anything students would like to add to the list? Groups or individuals can then decide on their themes and choose ways to express those themes artistically. Possibilities include: posters, collages, and three-dimensional presentations, incorporating drawing, painting, photos, and real-life objects. For example, a group may choose "respect" as a theme, and select images for a collage that conveys this.

  3. Finished art works can be presented to the class, then displayed.


Students can research and report on past and current issues regarding the First Amendment and freedom of religion. These might include the following:
  • School prayer
  • Religious clubs and organizations at school
  • The teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution vs. "intelligent design"
  • Public display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings