Sunday, March 1, 2009

Teaching Freedom of Religion

Establishment and Prohibition

Last week I discussed the concept of incorporation, a very important concept for you students to get a handle on for the AP Exam. If you missed that discussion and are not sure what you need to know about the topic, you might want to scroll down and take a peak at what I had to say. This week I want to look at the 1st Amendment as it concerns the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Have your students look at the hippocampus. org readings and lectures on these topics. They are first class and will really help with student understanding.

I would also direct you to the Oyez site if you are unaware of it. Here you can locate hundreds of Court cases and find summaries, opinions, information on the Justices and how they voted, and you can even hear audio of the oral arguments on selected cases. Findlaw is another site that will give you the opinions and link you to related cases and cases in which your case is cited.

Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause is not hard to teach. The students get very interested in the history and the cases. Many of the cases involve students and therefore easy for the kids to relate to. I first start the discussion on the Establishment Clause by referencing Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Church where he makes the famous "wall of separation" statement. This can lead to a discussion of original intention of the Founders including Enlightenment ideals and the state of religion in America in the 18th century.

I move on pretty quickly to the Supreme Court decisions that have truly shaped this concept. Below I will list the cases I focus on. You may have others you enjoy teaching, but I would caution you not to overwhelm kids with too many cases. While we can love cases and case history and remember them from years of teaching, the kids get the confused very quickly (as I have seen on AP exams as a reader).

  • Lemon vs. Kurtzman (three part standard set by the Court)
  • Abington School District v Schempp (family pictured above at the time of the case on Bible reading)
  • Engle v. Vitale and Wallace v. Jaffee (school prayer and moment of silence)
  • Allegheny v. ACLU (holiday displays by towns and cities)
I hold the students responsible for these cases, especially Lemon. The students absolutely must know the 3 standards the Court established in this case. I like to throw out a couple of other cases such as Lee v. Weisman (prayer at graduation) , Lynch vs. Donnelly (the so called plastic reindeer doctrine), and Sante Fe School Dist. v. Doe (prayer at athletic events). Again, I caution to not get the kids too bogged down in can prove to be a disaster!

Free Exercise

I start this topic with a discussion concerning the difference between belief and action. The Court in Ballard v. US said it wasn't in the business of defining religion or saying what was a religion and what wasn't, so pretty much, anytime someone has a sincere faith, the Court allows it. However, the Court has made it plain that while faith is allowed, actions can be limited. Here are some of the main cases I hit on during our discussion of Free Exercise which can be found in Oyez:
  • Reynolds v US (the polygamy case from the 1800s)
  • Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah (animal sacrifice)
  • Westside School District v. Mergens (equal access for Bible Clubs)
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder (mandatory education and religion)
  • West Virginia BOE v. Barnett (flag salute case)
  • Employment Division v. Smith (the peyote case)
I like to discuss several other cases, but these are a pretty good group to focus on. Mergens is especially important as it was a case brought by a student. My students are always interested in the facts surrounding her case. Great discussion of some of the above cases are found on Be sure to have your students read the text, view the presentations, and check out the Explore boxes!!!

Next week I will share my thoughts on speech and assembly. Until then...

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