The First Amendment and Freedom of Religion

In this lesson, students will use the case of Park51’s Islamic Cultural Center as a starting point for a discussion about whether religious freedom is absolute and if religious freedom requires respect for other religions. 
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • Define and understand religious freedom
Essential Questions
  • What is religious freedom?
  • Is religious freedom absolute?
  • Does freedom of religion require respect for other religions? 


Understanding the religious beliefs of others is a key element of tolerance since people’s faith traditions often define a significant part of their identity. In the United States, the spectrum of religious diversity is an integral part of our culture as a whole. Religion can sometimes be at the center of political debate. This is especially apparent when certain laws impact the way a person practices his or her religion. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as it violates elements of their belief system. Today, another raging debate illustrating the clashing between religion and politics is taking place in New York. 

Great controversy swirls over the planned construction of Park51, the Islamic Cultural Center proposed for Lower Manhattan. Many opponents of the center acknowledge its right to exist. However, they claim it’s in poor judgment to build it close to Ground Zero, because the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 tragedy were Muslim. Supporters of the center argue that any group has a right to build a place of worship anywhere in America, and both sides agree that this right is protected under the Constitution.

This controversy sheds light on the rising tide of American Islamophobia and emboldened other communities, like Sheboygan, Wisconsin or Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in trying to prevent or forestall the establishment or expansion of mosques.


Professional Development

  • What's a Teacher to Do? provides several tips for setting up a culturally sensitive classroom.
  • Maintain Neutrality illustrates how schools can teach religious tolerance — and stay within constitutional law.



religious freedom [ rel-ih-jus frē-dəm ]
(noun) the right to practice any religion you choose, or to live without any religion at all


Additional Resources



1)    In America, religious freedom is protected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Religious freedom can be defined as “the right to practice any religion you choose, or to live without any religion at all.” Put this definition into your own words. In your opinion, what is included under the term religious freedom? (Note: If students struggle, ask the following questions to help prompt their ideas: Should people be allowed to practice their religion anywhere they want? Why or why not? Are there any reasons that someone should NOT be allowed to practice his religion?)

2)    In small groups, discuss the following questions:

  • What does it mean to “respect other religions”?
  • Should the law ever prohibit the practice of a religion? Why? (Note: To help spark discussion, you may want to present some of the following hypothetical ideas: What if a religion forced its members to do something against their will? What if children are being hurt? Should the government get involved to help those people? Does this take away their religious freedom?)
  • In cases where religion clashes with the law, which one should win? Why?
  • How does protecting freedom of religion guarantee all of our rights? 

3)    The Constitution protects all Americans’ freedom of religion. Read the handout The First Amendment to learn more.

4)    One current example of a group’s religious freedom being questioned is the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan. Read more about both sides of this controversy in this Time magazine article, Mosque Protests Add Note of Discord to 9/11 Remembrances, (Note: Consider expanding to include other communities in the United States where there is resistance to mosques being built, e.g., Sheboygan, Wisconsin or Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

5)    After reading the article, discuss the following:

  • What do opponents of the Islamic Cultural Center think or feel? Why do you think they think or feel this way?
  • What do supporters think or feel? Why do you think they think or feel this way?
  • What are the values reflected by both sides?
  • Select and highlight or record one part from the article that was most meaningful to you. Why does this part stand out for you?
  • Revisit one or more of the essential questions: What is religious freedom? Is religious freedom absolute? Does freedom of religion require respect for other religions? 

6)    This is a complex issue with many sides to it. Read about some leaders’ opinions on the handout Responses to Islamic Center. You may want to add a couple of quotes that support or oppose the building of mosques elsewhere to the handout. In small groups, discuss each quote.

  • What is this person’s opinion on the Islamic Center?
  • Why do you think this person feels the way he does?

7)    Choose one of the quotes from the handout. How does this quote reflect the idea of religious freedom? Write a short response in your journal. Then form small groups and share your thoughts.


Extension Activity

Organize a Religious Diversity Day in your school district where all students, teachers and administrators can learn about different religious customs and traditions. You can even invite guest speakers from your community to join in.

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