The Law

Legal Frameworks for Governing a Diverse Society

The Religious Freedom Center equips educators to teach about how the rights and responsibilities that flow from the First Amendment provide the civic framework that enables debates about differences, to understand one another, and to forge public policies that serve the common good.

This legal framework allowed religious minorities from a variety of cultures to weave their stories into the fabric of American society, a process that must be made possible for all coreligionists and those who affiliate with none.

“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

– Article IV, Section 3to the U.S. Constitution (1788)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791)

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

– Article 18, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Legal Framework for Religion & Public Schools

In Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court declared that state-sponsored religious practices are unconstitutional in public schools. At the same time, however, the Court made clear that study about religions is not only constitutionally permissible but also necessary for a “complete education.” In writing for eight of the nine justices, Justice Tom Clark said,

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

diversity as a source of national strength

Properly understood and applied, the First Amendment provides the civic framework within which Americans are able to navigate deep and continuing differences over religious beliefs and practices, political initiatives, and constitutional interpretations.

As The Williamsburg Charter affirms, the two religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment address distinct concerns, but together they serve the same end: religious freedom, or liberty of conscience, for people of all religions and none.

  • The Establishment Clause separates religion from the state but not religion from politics or public life. It prevents the confusion of religion and government, which has been a leading source of oppression and coercion throughout history.
  • The Free Exercise Clause guarantees the right to reach, hold, exercise, or change beliefs freely. It allows all people who so desire to shape their lives, whether private or public, on the basis of personal and communal beliefs.

The religious liberty clauses are both a protection of individual liberty and a provision for ordering the relationship between religion and public life. The clauses allow us to live with our deepest differences and enable diversity to be a source of national strength.

Religiously Diverse Society

Today, the United States is one of the most religiously diverse societies in the world, where no single group constitutes a majority. People of all the world’s religions and people who do not affiliate with religion are found in every region of the country.[1]

At the same time, culture wars involving deep religious and ideological convictions make our increasingly crowded public square an often angry and hostile place. If we hope to sustain and expand the American experiment as one nation of many religions and beliefs in the 21st century, we must renew our commitment to the guiding principles of religious liberty in the First Amendment.

Nowhere is it more important to reinvigorate a shared understanding of the First Amendment than in our schools, the principal institutions charged with preparing young people for citizenship in a pluralistic democracy.

Laboratories for Democratic Freedom

By using an academic approach to teaching about religion and religious liberty, schools become laboratories for democratic freedom – places where people of all religions and none, learn to treat one another with fairness and respect.

This freedom made possible by the boldest and most successful part of the entire American experiment—the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment that promotes both the free exercise of religion while prohibiting an established state religion.

Two principles— no establishment and free exercise—are essential for one freedom, religious freedom for every human being.

Since their enactment 226 years ago, these principles shine forth in an era made dark by government restrictions on religion and increased social hostilities regarding issues of religion and public life. Yet the ignorance and contention now surrounding these clauses are a reminder that their advocacy and defense is a task for each succeeding generation.

Education for Public Citizenship

No group plays a more central role in carrying out the task of advocacy and defense of the First Amendment than the teachers of our nation’s public and private schools. Education for public citizenship is one of the three great purposes of education, along with education for work and education for personal development.[2]

Teachers are therefore charged with transmitting the fundamental principles of liberty and instilling in their students an understanding of democratic values. In large measure, what happens in the classroom determines in large measure the vitality and strength of American democracy.


At this crucial time in our history, educating students about the principles of religious liberty is a matter of great urgency.

The expanding diversity in the United States has dramatically increased America’s religious and ethnic identity—changing the demographics at the national, state and local levels.[3] “The United States now contains 6 times more Muslim Americans (4.8 million), 16 times more Buddhists (3.4 million), 15 times more Hindus (1.5 million), and 28 more times more Sikhs (286,000) than it did in 1970.”[4]

In the context of this changing demographic, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2012 Protestants, for the first time in United States history, became a minority, representing 48 percent of the population. This is significant because it revealed that the United States at that moment became, as far as we know, the first nation in the world in recorded history to have the challenge and opportunity of governing a nation of religious minorities. When adding Catholics with Protestants, Christians still make up 70 percent of the population; yet, according to Pew, the “Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.”[5] At the same time, there was increasing “racial and ethnic diversity within Christianity,” and increasing diversity among families. For instance, “one-in-five U.S. adults were raised in interfaith households.”[6]

How do we live with our deepest differences?

These are some of the demographic reasons why educators who teach about religious liberty are able to help students and parents ask a profound question that runs through the modern experience: How do we live with our deepest differences?

The answer lies in religious liberty, which is a fundamental and inalienable right for people of all religions or none.


[1] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Washington, D.C., 2015; Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the Worlds Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.

[2] Mortimer Adler, The Paidea Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1982

[3] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015; “The American Values Atlas,” Public Religion Research Institute, 2015.

[4] Vincent N. Parrillo, Diversity in America, Routledge, 4th edition, 2016, p. 138. We recognized that studies vary about the religious demographic. The Pew Research Center, for instance, estimates only 3.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. in 2015; however, Pew estimates that this will double by 2050. Besheer Mohamed, “A new estimate of the U.S. Muslim population,” Pew Research Center, January 6, 2016.

[5] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015.

[6] “One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes: A closer look at religious mixing in American families,” Pew Research Center, October 26, 2016.