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Rights and the Declaration of Independence

105 min

Guiding Questions

  • What is the American idea of religious toleration and religious liberty?


  • Students will explain how the First Amendment protects religious freedom.
  • Students will differentiate between religious toleration and religious liberty.
  • Students will identify early legislation regarding religious liberty.
  • Students will analyze Washington’s response to the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI.

  • Bill of Rights
  • Constitution
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • First Amendment
  • George Washington
  • John Locke
  • Liberty
  • Magna Carta
  • Maryland Toleration Act
  • Moses Seixas
  • Natural rights
  • Parliament
  • Property
  • religious liberty
  • religious toleration
  • The Providence Agreement
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Two Treatises of Civil Government
  • Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Begin the lesson by having students read Handout A: From Establishment to Free Exercise Essay, answer the Critical Thinking Questions that follow the essay, and complete Handout B: Defining Toleration and Liberty.

Have a few students share their definitions of toleration and liberty based on their work on Handout B, keeping a list of key terms and phrases on the board. (Clarify for students the difference between “tolerance,” which refers to private relationships, and “toleration,” which refers to a government policy toward minority religions.)

Identify and discuss similarities and differences between the definitions, with the goal of arriving at a consensus on the best way to define the two terms. Write the agreed-upon definitions on the board.

Divide students into 8 groups, and assign each group one of the document excerpts from Handout C: Religion and America’s Past – Toleration, Liberty, or Both?

Have each group read their assigned document excerpt and complete their section of Handout D: Religion and America’s Past—Toleration, Liberty, or Both Graphic Organizer.

They should decide whether it is an example of the principle of toleration, liberty, or both, and they should explain their reasoning. When all groups have completed their section of the graphic organizer, conduct a jigsaw activity where each group member discusses their assigned excerpt and findings.

Have students complete Handout E: Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island (1790). Either read the letter aloud to the class, or prepare a volunteer to read it aloud. Guide the class through discussion of the Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions.

3-2-1: Ask students to fill in an exit ticket (or share orally) describing three takeaways, two questions, and one thing they enjoyed from this lesson.

Have students read the AP articles and consider the following questions:

  • To what extent are there limits to religious liberty?
  • To what extent has the idea of religious liberty changed since America’s Founding?

Students can also read the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 Ask students to consider why this legislation was deemed necessary.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

The Articles of Confederation

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