George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Toleration vs. Religious Freedom

Module Three

Toleration vs. Religious Freedom

Tolerations vs. Religious Freedom

Introduce students to the origins and difference between the concepts of “toleration,” “liberty of conscience,” and “inherent natural rights.”


During the debate about religious freedom in Virginia, George Mason proposed the following clause on religious liberty:

All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.

James Madison suggested an alternative:

That religion or the duty we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence and compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience.

In his Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island, George Washington wrote:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.


Students will divide into teams and present a debate on the topic:

Religious tolerance is different from religious liberty. A group of students may serve as debate judges and question the debaters.

  1. What is your understanding of the difference between “toleration,” “liberty of conscience?”
  2. Which perspective won out when the first amendment was written?
  3. What is the relationship between “inherent natural rights” “liberty of conscience?”
Materials & Resources

Students will need access to computers with web-capability (or printed copies of the following items):

Web Resources

Avalon Project at the Yale Law School
The Avalon Project website presents digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government.

Bill of Rights Institute
The Bill of Rights Institute is one of GWIRF’s partners in educating students on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Facing History and Ourselves
Facing History and Ourselves is one of GWIRF’s partners in educating students on religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

First Amendment Center
The First Amendment Center offers comprehensive research coverage of key First Amendment issues and topics, daily First Amendment news, commentary and analyses by respected legal specialists, and a First Amendment Library of legal cases and related materials.

Library of Congress
Comprehensive source for digital versions of key documents of American history, with teacher resources and ideas on how to use primary source materials in classrooms.

TeAchnology, U.S. Constitution Teaching Theme
TeAchnology provides free resources for teachers. The site has over 42,000 lesson plans, 9000 free printable worksheets, rubrics, teaching tips, worksheet makers, web quests, math worksheets, and  other teacher resources. Material is available for Kindergarten through High School teachers.

Additional material is available at

Curriculum Standards

All modules meet curriculum standards of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).

See for additional information.

  • Standard 1 — Understands the ideas about life, politics and government
  • Standard 2 — Understands the historical perspective
  • Standard 8 — Understands the institutions and practices of Government created during the Revolution and how these elements were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundations of the American political systems based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights 
  • Era 3 — Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)

Language Arts
  • Standard 7 — Uses reading skills and strategy to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts