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The First Amendment Encyclopedia

Articles, news and insights about free expression in America

First Amendment Lesson Plan: Religion in public schools

Appropriate academic subjects

Suitable for classes in government and civics.

Focusing hypotheticals

This lesson presents two diametrically opposed situations involving religion in public secondary schools, toward fostering an understanding of the two clauses of the First Amendment pertaining to religion.

Situation A. After a vote by the school district, North High School begins broadcasting a nondenominational Christian prayer over the loudspeaker each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of the prayers specifically invoke Jesus Christ. Students are told that they may sit or stand during the prayer, as they wish. Those giving the prayers include school administrators, teachers, volunteering students and local Christian clergy from various denominations. Parents of Jewish, Muslim and Sikh students lodge protests against the practice. They say their students are being forced to hear prayers that do not reflect their faiths, and that the practice is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Situation B. Administrators at South High School, fearful of complaints and lawsuits stemming from mentions of religion in public school, declare that any expression of religious belief or faith on school grounds is forbidden. Students who have been gathering each morning to pray before school are told that they may no longer do so or risk suspension. Students also may not pray alone, silently or otherwise, or discuss their faith with others on campus. Bibles, Korans and other religious texts are barred from classrooms. A group of parents of several faiths object to the new policy, saying it is an unconstitutional restriction of religious freedom under the First Amendment.

Key concepts

The religion-related clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution are highlighted here:

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.”

(Situation A.) Under the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment, and in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings, public schools may not impose prayer or other religious practices on students, even if students are not required to participate. The first religion clause says government and its agencies are prohibited from establishing or requiring religion, including official attempts to impose or instill beliefs in students. This prohibition prevents government from setting up a national religion, and from favoring one religion over another. Therefore, prayers may not be broadcast over the school public-address system.

(Situation B.) Under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, and in line with U.S. Supreme Court rulings, public schools may not prevent students from expressing or sharing religious beliefs, as long as their doing so does not disrupt the school. The second religion clause says government and its agencies may not forbid or interfere with individuals’ practice of religion. Public school students therefore may pray, alone or in groups, silently or aloud, as long as classes and non-participating students are not disturbed. Students may bring religious texts to school and read and discuss them. 

Time period

One class period.

Procedure

Present the two religion clauses in the First Amendment and ask students to offer examples of how religious liberty might be infringed by government, be it federal, state or local. Then present the two hypothetical situations and invite the class to contrast the actions of school officials. Encourage students to explain why, under the First Amendment, the school officials’ actions were wrong.

Assessment/evaluation

Assign students to research apparent First Amendment religious-freedom violations in the news or in the readings and resources below. Ask them to write a 1- to 2-page paper detailing the situation they found and explaining why it could constitute a violation of religious freedom.

Materials and readings

Resource: A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, by Charles C. Haynes

Resource: Religious Freedom Center, Newseum Institute

Resource: ACLU: Religious Liberty

Resource: ACLJ: Religious liberty

Reading: Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs

Additional bibliography

Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools, by Charles C. Haynes and Oliver Thomas. First Amendment Center, 2011.

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