The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution


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 in Utah 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 lesson plan will explore these questions and more.

The Framer’s Debates on Religion is an online module designed for middle and high schoolers (grades 7–12), anticipating intermittent school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic. 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.

The 3Rs Framework

The Utah 3Rs Project promotes the civic understanding of constitutional rights by using humanities education to promote the 3Rs of religious liberty: every person has Rights; we all have the Responsibility to protect the rights of others, including people who are different; and we all have the duty to be Respectful toward other people even when we disagree.

The Utah 3Rs Project is a civic education initiative that uses humanities scholarship to cultivate students’ knowledge about the origins and effects of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Our objective is to create a constitutional culture in Utah, whose residents respect and honor one another’s differences. This is especially critical in our current political moment as polarization increases and political attention for the marginalized has amplified.

Learning Objectives

By using The Framer’s Debates on Religion, students will…

  1. Discover the religious diversity in early America that influenced the creation of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. 
  2. Explore how the debates of the First Federal Congress shaped the text of the religion clauses of the First Amendment and examine the leading questions about the relationship between church and state considered by the First Federal Congress of 1789. 
  3. Investigate the Utah state constitution for its provisions protecting the rights of conscience. 
  4. Consider a decision-makers mindset for this historical study and apply this approach and the 3Rs framework of rights, responsibility and respect to their present day communities in Utah.

Ways to Use this Lesson Plan

Option 1. Asynchronous Assignment. The lessons are designed for students grades 7 to 12 to use at their own pace. Assign the videos and interactives and ask them to send you written reflections on the discussion questions.

Option 2. Synchronous Exercises. Use a video conferencing platform to gather your students. Watch the videos and interact with the lessons together in real time. Use the discussion questions to engage and assess their learning.

Option 3. Hybrid Experience. Combine both asynchronous and synchronous learning. Start by assigning the videos and interactives as homework. Whether you gather your students in person or via a video conferencing, use the discussion questions to engage and assess their learning.

Option 4. Classroom Experience. Use a large screen in the classroom to show the  videos and use the discussion questions to engage them. Demonstrate on the large screen how to use the interactives as part of your in-person learning experience.

Utah Learning Standards

Utah Studies, Standard 2:4 (7th Grade): Students will research multiple perspectives to explain one or more of the political, social, cultural, religious conflicts of the period, including the U.S. Civil War and more localized conflicts such as the Utah War, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Bear River Massacre, the Black Hawk War, or other Federal-Mormon conflicts (history).

Utah Studies, Standard 2:7 (7th Grade) Students will identify the political challenges that delayed Utah’s statehood and explain how these changes were overcome (civics).

Utah Studies, Standard 3:1 (7th Grade) Students will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.

U.S. History I, Standard 4.1 (8th Grade): Students will explain how the ideas, events, and compromises which led to the development and ratification of the Constitution are reflected in the document itself.

U.S. History I, Standard 4.2 (8th Grade): Students will describe the structure and function of the government that the Constitution creates.

U.S. History I, Standard 4.3 (8th Grade): Students will use historic case studies and current events to trace how and explain why the rights, liberties, and responsibilities of citizens have changed over time.

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.

Download Discussion Questions

Students are prompted in the module to download these questions and respond as they go. They are also instructed to bring their responses to their class discussion with their teacher at the close of the module.

Teachers' Guide

Funders & Partners

We are grateful for funding from Utah Humanities, The Foundation for Religious Literacy and Craig and Connie Thatcher Foundation for making this curriculum possible. We are also grateful to our research partners: The Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley University, the Quill Project at the University of Oxford, and 1791 Delegates.

TFRL logo
A logo of the UVU Center for the Study of Ethics
A logo of the Quill Project
A logo of the 1971 Delegates organization

Humanities Scholars

Eleesha Tucker, M.A., the project director and history/civics educator, brings ten years of experience designing educational resources for educators. She is known for connecting the history of America’s founding to contemporary audiences. She is based in Utah.

Nicholas Cole, Ph.D., a British historian of American history, oversees the verification of the archives used in this lesson plan, ensuring historical accuracy. Dr. Cole provides Utah students access to digitized historical sources from the Quill Project of Oxford University.

Brian Birch, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley University. He drew upon this research areas on the intersection of ethics, religion, and public life to advise this project. 

Nathan C. Walker, Ed.D., is an e-learning specialist and First Amendment educator having previously designed online courses for New York University and the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute. His contributions build upon his academic research at Columbia University on effective ways to use technology in the classroom.


Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.