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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Freedom of Religion Freedom of Religion — Lesson Plan

The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:

  • Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
  • Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
  • Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
  • Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
  • Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
  • Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.


Teacher: Kristen Borges has been a social studies teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, since 1996. She team-teaches Arts and Humanities Civics with an English teacher and has created an arts-infused interdisciplinary curriculum. She also teaches the senior level International Baccalaureate History of the Americas course, which focuses on the history of Latin America. She has also coached the speech team. Prior to coming to Southwest, Kristen Borges taught for a year and a half at other Minnesota high schools. Kristen Borges holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Providence College in Rhode Island, and a Master of Arts in teaching social studies from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.

School: Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a site-based managed school with a multicultural enrollment of approximately 1,700 students in grades nine through 12. The school is committed to promoting academic excellence, creativity, critical thinking, lifetime-learning skills, and physical well-being for all students in a safe learning environment. The school values cultural diversity and global interdependence, and nurtures a respect for the environment. Southwest attaches importance to its collaborative relationship among staff, students, parents, administrators, and community members.

Course: The title of the course, which runs over two semesters, is Team 9 Arts and Humanities Civics. It is part of an English, arts, and humanities block in which teachers are permitted to be flexible in how they allocate the two-hour class period. The beginning of the year focuses on the foundations of U.S. government and the structures of government at both the national and local level. Economics and its role in U.S. government is the focus in the middle of the year. In the final part of the year, the class examines the legal system, civil justice, and particularly the way that the government deals with current issues. The course text is We the People (Calabasa, Calif.: Center for Civic Education, 1988).

Lesson-Specific Standards

This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.

From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government (1994):

Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on:

  • the importance of the rule of law and the sources, purposes, and functions of law.
  • the fundamental values and principles of American political life and their importance to the maintenance of constitutional democracy.
  • issues in which fundamental values and principles may be in conflict.
  • issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.
  • issues regarding personal rights.
  • issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights.
  • the importance to American constitutional democracy of dispositions that foster respect for individual worth and human dignity.

Students should be able to explain the importance of knowledge to competent and responsible participation in American democracy.

From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence : Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994):

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of:

  • how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
  • ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

Teaching the Lesson: Overview, Goals, and Planning

This lesson demonstrates the constructivist methodologies of questioning strategies and their use in mock trials. It features ninth-grade civics students at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a simulation of a U.S. Supreme Court hearing concerning a First Amendment case. The case is about a Texas school district that appealed a lower court decision directing them to discontinue having a student deliver a prayer over the intercom before football games. The case was originally brought against the school district by a group of parents. The Southwest students–who do not know the actual outcome of the case at the start of the lesson–assume the roles of Supreme Court Justices and attorneys. Over a three-day period, students first work in groups to prepare for the hearing as their teacher, Kristen Borges, guides them with strategically asked questions, then participate in the hearing, and finally, debrief their experiences and write a short essay stating their position on the case, including the benefits and potential problems to society of their recommended decision.

The goals of this lesson are twofold:

  • to explore the structure and process used by the United States Supreme Court in interpreting and applying the Constitution, and
  • to apply those operational principles to a case previously decided by the Court.

Students have spent a significant amount of time looking at the documents that our government is based on. They have examined the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Early in the year, Kristen Borges concentrated on the vocabulary of the documents, specifically looking at the language that the founders used. More recently, she has had students interpret the documents in their own language. Students have been discussing the original intent of the founders and exploring how a document that was written more than 200 years ago can be applied to current issues in our society, particularly controversial ones.

The students have looked at how the federal judicial branch is structured and local lawyers have explained about different types of courts and how they argue cases. The class studied the structure of the Supreme Court and the process of appointing Supreme Court Justices, including the influence of politics in the appointment process. It has also considered how a Supreme Court hearing is organized and how the Justices deliberate and reach decisions.

Before this lesson begins, students will have learned and practiced the skills used by both the Justices and attorneys appearing before the Supreme Court and will have applied them to several cases, including Tinker v. Des Moines. They also will have selected the roles they want to assume in this project.

Activity 1: Attorneys and Justices Prepare for Trial

Introduce the day’s lesson and announce the groups. Kristen Borges began the class by having students write down a pertinent quote for the day, in this case by Thomas Jefferson: The constitutional freedom of religion is the most inalienable and sacred of all rights. In introducing the quote, Kristen Borges reviewed the meaning of the word “inalienable” and did a quick review of the First Amendment.

Divide students into their assigned groups: Supreme Court, lawyers representing the families, and lawyers representing the school district.

Distribute and discuss the rubrics that will be used to assess students’ performance, explaining the standards students need to meet to score well (see Assessment).

Distribute the Background Information Packet and Student Instructions. The information packet used by Kristen Borges was derived from material developed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Freedom Forum. It contains the First Amendment and information about previous Supreme Court cases dealing with religion in public schools. The packet also includes specific information about the particular case (Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 2000), including what the families are upset about, what the school board policy was concerning prayer at a pre-game ceremony for a football game, and a brief history of the school district and its strong religious tradition.

The role instructions guide the students through a series of questions about the case. The lawyer groups are to examine the situation and try to find an applicable legal precedent. They also have to look at Lemon v. Kurtzman, which is called the Lemon test, and determines whether or not government involvement in a situation violates the principle of separation of church and state. The lawyers also are directed to develop their arguments and make sure they are sufficiently persuasive to convince the Supreme Court that a decision in their side’s favor would benefit society.

The Supreme Court Justices are presented with questions that will stimulate them to examine the complexities of this case, particularly in light of precedents, and prepare questions to ask the attorneys at the hearing.

Before directing the groups to work independently, Kristen Borges had students read aloud the summary of the case and a little bit of the history of the community where it started. While students worked in their groups, she walked around asking questions and helping the students go through some of their background information and narrow down the information to data that would support their position or resolve questions about the case. Typically, she asked open-ended questions that either helped students clarify an issue or redirected their attention from personal opinion to the issues. Later in the class period, she gently moved the groups from information gathering to the development of strategies for the hearing.

Activity 2: Attorneys Argue Before the Supreme Court

Kristen Borges set up the room for the hearing prior to the arrival of the students. She placed nine desks at the front of the room for the Supreme Court Justices and placed desks on each side of the room for the opposing attorneys. In the middle of the room was a podium where students stood to address the court.

At the beginning of the class, provide a few minutes for students to finish up any last-minute preparation for the hearing.

Review the rubrics and make sure students know how they will be assessed. Explain that each group has 20 minutes, but the justices may interrupt with questions at any time. Attorneys may choose to save some of their time for rebuttal.

Ask the justices to leave the room and have one student perform the role of a law clerk. The job of the law clerk is to set the formal tone of the hearing and ask the justices to enter the room. The Chief Justice then asks both sides if they are ready to present their arguments.

Because they are the appellants in the case, the attorneys for the school board present their case first. Allow a few minutes between the arguments for the Supreme Court Justices to ask questions or make any points that they would like to make.

The plaintiffs–in this case, the attorneys representing the families–come next.

If the school board has saved any time for rebuttal, it would come next.

During the hearing, Kristen Borges concentrated on two tasks: serving as timekeeper and assessing the students’ performances.

Once both sides have presented their arguments, remind the Justices to review their notes and start thinking about the decision that’s ahead of them.

Activity 3: Supreme Court Deliberation and Decision

With the attorneys’ groups looking on, the Justices confer about the hearing and make a decision. They must also analyze how their decision would impact society. From time to time during this discussion, Kristen Borges asked leading questions that redirected the group to the constitutional issues of the case.

Activity 4: Large Group Discussion

After the Justices announce their decision, open the floor to a full-class assessment of both the decision and the process. Kristen Borges began this discussion by reiterating the rules for such a discussion (No one talks while someone else is talking. Criticize ideas, not people). She also used the technique of asking each group to critique the performance of the other group.

For homework, assign a five-paragraph essay in which students state their personal opinion of the case, provide evidence that supports their opinion, and discuss the impact their decision would have on society. Distribute and discuss the Instructions for Supreme Court Opinion Essay and the Scoring Sheet for Final Essay for this assignment.


The hearing would normally take about an hour although the presentation time for each side could be adjusted to your class schedule. Other parts of the lesson could be divided as well to meet the time limitations of your school’s schedule and the needs of your students. The pre-hearing research, for example, could be scheduled over several days and might include some time spent searching the Internet for additional cases (some students in Kristen Borges’s class did this on their own at home). Similarly, the Justice’s deliberations could take place on a different day than the debriefing.


Each student can score up to 100 points on each of two assignments: their group work, including their performance in the hearing and subsequent discussion, and their final essay. A four-level scale denotes work that is Exemplary (9-10 points), Proficient (6-8 points), Basic (3-5 points), and Minimum (0-2 points). Rubric items are divided into Preparation, Hearing, and Conference. In general, students are expected to use the documents in the Background Information Packet as well as others that they may have found and to address the Constitutional issues or cite previously decided Supreme Court cases. They are also expected to listen attentively to each other and present their arguments or questions clearly.

The assessment rubrics used for this lesson can be found below. You can download these documents and print them out for your own use.

Assessment Rubrics (PDF)

  • Supreme Court Scoring Sheet: Attorney’s Performance
  • Supreme Court Scoring Sheet: Justice’s Performance
  • Scoring Sheet for Final Essay

Lesson Materials

Below you will find the materials Kristen Borges used for her lesson on Freedom of Religion. You can download these documents and print them out for your own use.

Student Instructions (PDF)

  • Instructions for Attorneys
  • Instructions for Supreme Court Justices
  • Supreme Court Conference Instructions
  • After-Hearing Discussion Instructions
  • Instructions for Supreme Court Opinion Essay

Background Information Packet (PDF)

  • The First Amendment
  • First Amendment Freedoms
  • Discussion Questions
  • Background: The Church, The State, and the Public Schools
  • Should Students Have the Right to Lead Prayers at Public School Events?
  • Background of the Case
  • Arguments Presented by the Santa Fe Independent School District
  • Arguments Presented by Catholic and Mormon Families

Supreme Court Cases


Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.

Arbetman, Lee. “The Road to the Court,” Social Education, Vol. 66. No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 46-50.

Bell, Kathy. “Using Moot Courts in the Classroom,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 42, 44-45.

Bierbauer, Charles. “Supreme Court Coverage,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 63-65.

Chemerinksy, Eric. “The Rehnquist Court,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 34-38.

Epstein, Aaron. “Supreme Court Voting Patterns 1994-2001,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 40-41.

Hess, Diana and Anand Marri. “Which Cases Should We Teach?” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 53-59.

Mazur, Eric Michael. “Minority Religions and Limitations on Religious Freedom,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 3, April 2002, pp. 149-59.

McDonald, Maureen. “Making a Case for the Case Study Method,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 68-69.

Perry, Barbara. “The Cult of the Robe: The U.S. Supreme Court in the American Mind, Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 30-33.

Raskin, Jamin B. We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, A Division of Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2000.

Williams, Charles F. “The United States Supreme Court and the World Wide Web,” Social Education, Vol. 66, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 51-52.

Useful Web Sites
Center for Civic Education
Constitutional Rights Foundation
National Council for the Social Studies

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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: ISBN: 1-57680-679-0