RELST 233 / WES 200: Religion & Constitutional Law

Course Description

This course will introduce students to the complex relationship between religion and government through an in-depth analysis of the nation’s founding documents and the subsequent series of First Amendment church-state decisions rendered by the United States Supreme Court.

Through the use of primary documents and the interpretation of Supreme Court First Amendment religion decisions, we will explore the genesis, history, and current legal presuppositions guiding disputes over religious freedom. Through a historical approach, we will examine the impact of the No Establishment Clause and the challenge the Free Exercise Clause on American religious culture. This will provide the backdrop for discussions of current legal issues of religious freedom, including the debates over contemporary issues such as abortion, gay rights, and euthanasia.


By the end of the semester, students enrolled in this course:

Should have a working knowledge of the major U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving religion and the First Amendment;

Should have a basic ability to read, interpret, and discuss those materials;

Should have an understanding of the history behind the development of the various doctrines governing the relationship between religion and federal law in the United States; and

Should have a basic understanding of the changing nature of public religion in America.

Texts & Readings

The following text is available at the bookstore. You are free to purchase it elsewhere, but you are solely responsible for purchasing the correct title (and edition) if you do so.

Hammond, Phillip E., David W. Machacek, and Eric Michael Mazur. Religion on Trial: How Supreme Court Trends Threaten the Freedom of Conscience in America. (HAMMOND)

[This volume can be accessed FREE online (one-hour installments) at ARCHIVE.ORG. (You must have an account, which is also free:  Instructions [PDF])]

In addition, you are expected to read primary historical documents and decisions of the United States Supreme Court. (Links are provided on the “Schedule of Readings & Assignments” Web page for this class.) Additional material also may be distributed in class or linked to the class Web site.

[Materials marked “PRIMARY” will be discussed on the date listed; those marked “SECONDARY” may be discussed on the date listed. You are responsible for reading all materials on the date listed.]



In-Class Participation (20 points)

You are expected to attend all classes and complete all assignments. In addition, you are expected to participate fully in class discussions and engage the materials in class. Regular and thoughtful participation in class, as well as enthusiastic participation in the assignments, will be rewarded in this category; mindless blather will not. You will also be expected to answer questions put to you randomly in class.

“Colloquy” (20 points)

On occasion, you may be called upon at random to assist in the presentation of a court decision, and must engage with me in a colloquy (“a formal conversation”). You will be evaluated on your preparedness, as well as on your analytical and creative thinking.

To assist you in this task, you are expected to prepare an index card for each of the court decisions designated “CASE LAW.” On this card, you may HAND WRITE any information about the decision that you consider relevant. You must submit each card on the day the decision is to be discussed in class. (All cards must be clearly identified with your name and the title of the assigned decision.) Each card is worth 1/2 point; given the number of decisions to be read, you will not need to submit cards for each decision to earn the full 20 points in this category. However, submission of cards for all decisions will be evaluated positively in terms of class participation (see above).

Cards will be returned for the examinations, and may be used during the course of the exam. Cards submitted late will NOT be accepted, and cards submitted without a name / decision title will be discarded.

Mid-Term Examinations (2 x 20 points = 40 points)

There are two mid-term examinations scheduled, each one based on the readings and court materials used in class up to that point.

Semester-Long Writing Project (20 points)

The final paper, based on a current case or hypothetical scenario, is the result of a series of writing “Phases,” and is due on the date indicated in the “Schedule of Readings & Assignments.” See also: “Semester-Long Writing Project

LINKS (copy and paste URL into your browser):

Class Hypothetical (a): 303 Creative v. Elenis et al.

Class Hypothetical (b): Groff v. DeJoy

RELST 233 / WES 200: Class Hypothetical (b)

Schedule of Readings & Assignments

Classroom Policies