HIST 130 The Federal Framers’ Debates on Religion: The First Amendment

In this course, you will journey through hundreds of years of religious history leading up to the First Federal Congress of 1789. Examine the legal transitions from religious persecution, to religious toleration, to religious free exercise. Study the Bill of Rights congressional debates for discussion about religion. Explore the various amendment proposals for religion before arriving at the First Amendment text we know today, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Congress mandates all public educators teach about the U.S. Constitution each September 17th. How and what the Framers’ debated about religion two centuries ago is of unique importance to students today. 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” begins two religion clauses of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause prohibits the United States government from favoring one religion over another. The Free Exercise Clause protects the inherent right for citizens to express their belief or no belief as they choose, as long as it does not violate the rights of others.

How did this become the law concerning religion in the United States? When the First Federal Congress convened in New York City in 1789 to debate adding a Bill of Rights to the newly created Constitution, the congressmen considered how to define the relationship between the United States federal government and religion. Should the federal government be allowed to create laws that touch on religion, even though the states already had their own laws concerning religion? If so, should the regulation be the same for all the states in the Union? This course will explore these questions and more.

The Framer’s Debates on Religion is an online module designed for high schoolers (grades 9–12) and college students. It can also be used in physical classrooms, emphasizing the civil dialogue modeled by the founding congressmen as they debated and proposed changes to the text of what ultimately became the First Amendment. The module relies on historical debates in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as digitized archives from the Quill Project at the University of Oxford, the Library of Congress, National Archives, and National Constitution Center.


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Civic Education for a Common Good

We apply the U.S. Department of Education’s Consensus Statements about Constitutional Approaches for Teaching about Religion

▸ Our approach to religion is academic, not devotional;
▸ We strive for student awareness of religions, but do not press for student acceptance of any religion;
▸ We sponsor the study about religion, not the practice of religion;
▸ We expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view;
▸ We educate about all religions, we do not promote or denigrate any religion;
▸ We inform students about religious beliefs and practices, it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief or practice.

We apply the American Academy of Religion’s “Religious Literacy Guidelines”

▸ “Religious Literacy Guidelines for College Students.” American Academy of Religion, 2019.
▸ “Teaching About Religion: AAR Guidelines for K-12 Public Schools.” American Academy of Religion, April 2010.

We apply the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Frameworks for Religious Studies

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, “Religious Studies Companion Document for the C3 Framework.” Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies, 2017.

We also apply the following Utah State Learning Standards

U.S. Government and Citizenship, Standard 2.1 (High School): Students will use historic and modern case studies, including Supreme Court cases, amendment initiatives, and legislation to trace the application of civil liberties, civil rights, and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other amendments.

U.S. History II, Standard 7.5 (High School): Students will use evidence to demonstrate how technological developments (such as television and social media), government policies (such as Supreme Court decisions), trends (such as rock ‘n’ roll or environmental conservation), and/or demographic changes (such as the growth of suburbs and modern immigration) have influenced American culture.