While we all agree that religious freedom is our right, we continue to debate how that freedom should be expressed, and what place religion should play in the public sphere. This debate can be conducted through civil discussion in our classrooms and public forums. George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI,” of 1790 is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the parameters of religious freedom articulated by a sitting president and is a milestone in the development of religious liberties in America. It is thus an excellent starting point for a discussion of these issues.
This program is intended to:
- Bring open discussion of U. S. Constitutional and First Amendment Rights relating to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the separation of church and state into classrooms
- Have students appreciate and understand the content, meaning, and history of the George Washington “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” (August 1790) and its relevance to religious freedoms in the 21st century
- Encourage you as teacher, principal, or administrator to reach out to local elected representatives to ask their participation in this program with your students
Whether you choose to present this program in an individual classroom or turn it into a school wide event, master PDFs for all of the materials needed are available, at no cost.
Please feel free to print or post to your local website (without modification) as required.
Distributing the “George Washington Letter Commemorative Packet” to your students in advance of the event is the best way to encourage participation and inspire interest. The materials have been prepared for use by junior and senior high school students, but will be suitable for students in middle-schools and junior high and above.
Click the links below to download any materials you need. Everything is in PDF format for use with Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat.
- “George Washington Letter Commemorative Packet”
- “Classroom Guides” (discussion topics, activity ideas, etc.)
Any additional materials that will help you with the lesson and discussion:
- Review the materials and duplicate as needed for student use
- Distribute the Letter Packets
- Read the letters (Seixas and Washington) aloud with the students
- Open discussion
Host a Letter Reading by Local Civic Leaders
We have found that political leaders (mayors, city council members, and other elected officials) are often enthusiastic visitors to local classrooms and schools. Their reading and studying the letter with students offers additional education opportunities, reinforces the current relevance of Washington’s letter, and serves as a strong lesson in civics and participation.
Additional materials for a public official’s visit:
- Sample invitation (have your students write the actual letter)
- Preparation packet for the visitors use in advance of their visit
- Sample confirmation letters/email to confirm participation and provide detail timeline and location
- Sample thank you letters to participating public officials
- Sample press release (if appropriate) for their use (or yours)
- Suggested timetable for planning the event
Take the Message School-wide with a General School Assembly
Plan with your fellow faculty, the school administration, and parents to bring the event to all students.
Host a Letter Reading in your Classroom
Don’t have time for school-wide assembly? Have someone(s) read the letter out loud. The students, you, the school principal, a parent, or other guests can all be involved. Classroom visitors can often bring new insights and offer an opportunity for your students to interact with their greater community.
Hold a Classroom (or School-wide) Essay Contest
Have your students write an essay about the Washington Letter, its ideas, the history surrounding it, etc.
Some of our favorite questions include:
- How does the 1790 Washington Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI relate to world events today?
- If Washington were writing this letter today, who would he address it to and what would it say?
- What does the 1790 Washington Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI actually say about tolerance (or toleration), equality of belief before the law, and separation of church and state?
Have your students submit their essays to the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom
We would be pleased and proud to post outstanding submissions on the www.gwirf.org website. All submissions must be made via with the essay text in either a plain text document or MS Word format. Please be sure that the submission email contains the following:
- Student’s name and grade
- School’s name and postal address
- Teacher’s name, class subject, and teacher’s valid contact email
Our education panel will review any submissions and will select pieces for posting as space permits. If a student piece is selected, we will inform the teacher via email prior to posting.