Magazine Feature

Toolkit for "Religion versus Equality?"

This toolkit reminds history and government teachers that they can—and should—teach with confidence about religious freedom and how it can come into conflict with other rights.
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It’s important to study the history of religious freedom from a legal perspective. In your classroom, you can point to the U.S. Supreme Court cases and legislation mentioned in “Religion versus Equality?

The activities in this toolkit engage students in understanding primary sources and recognizing patterns and trends across time. The activities culminate with students evaluating how some religious freedom claims are wrapped up in the backlash against the advancement of LGBT rights.


Essential Questions

  1. How has the right to freedom of religion come into conflict with other rights in the United States?
  2. How has the U.S. Supreme Court resolved conflicts around religious freedom and other rights in the past?
  3. How are claims for religious freedom being used to limit the advancement of LGBT rights?



Teach court cases about religious freedom.

Supreme Court cases illustrate that there has been friction between the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and a range of other constitutionally protected rights. For instance, in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) case, access to certain reproductive health care was weighed against the free exercise of religion. In the Reynolds v. United States (1878) and Employment Division v. Smith (1990) rulings, the Court determined that religious practices came into conflict with mainstream norms about marriage and drug use, respectively.

Cases like these help complicate the current “religion versus rights” binary framing set up by media and pundits. The list below provides five examples that can be used as the basis for a classroom activity. 

There are a number of ways this activity can be done, depending on your time, class size, subject area and literacy goals. Here are a few options:

  • Assign students a case to research on their own, in pairs or in groups, and then have them report back to the class so that all students learn something about the five cases.
  • Select one or two cases to focus on more deeply in a shared reading with your class.
  • Have students study all five cases.

In any scenario, close reading strategies should be used to support comprehension of the complex language used in the Supreme Court’s opinions. (See Teaching Tolerance’s teaching strategies, for close and critical reading strategies.)


Highlight traits and trends in the arguments.

Rather than get bogged down in the particulars of each case, students should focus their readings on how different rights and freedoms are balanced by the Court across cases. In particular, how is religious freedom interpreted? Does the Court uphold arguments in favor of the free exercise of religious beliefs? Where does the Court draw a line between the freedom of religion and the protection of other rights? 

Use the handout, “U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on Religious Freedom,” to help students organize their evidence and think about those trends. A teacher’s version is available and can be used in lieu of the student version as notes for a lecture or other activity. 

What students are likely to gather is that there is great deal of inconsistency in the way the Court has ruled regarding the First Amendment free-exercise clause. 


Set the stage for today.

Now that you have provided an historical and legal context, introduce more recent cases that involve religious freedom claims.   

Here would be an appropriate time to introduce your students to two important documents, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.


Frame the current debate in a Document-Based Question.

Some of the resistance to the advancement of LGBT rights is coming from a legal interpretation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. As “Religious versus Equality?” points out, “This divide has all the markings of a classic social studies dilemma: competing rights and values, how change often meets resistance and how the legislative and legal systems can be used to advance and thwart social movements.” Have students work out that dilemma by responding to this Document-Based Question.