By Doug DuBrin
One to two class periods, plus extended activities
9 – 12
To examine the process of amending the U.S. Constitution through the issue of same-sex marriage.
Through this lesson, the student will come to understand the legal battle over legalizing same-sex marriage and the process of amending the U.S. Constitution.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage would be legal nationwide, overturning same-sex marriage bans in 14 states.
Going further back: since 1789 (when the Constitution was officially accepted, or ratified, by all states) there have been only 27 amendments out of the thousands proposed by lawmakers in Congress. In fact, the 27th Amendment, which concerns congressional pay, was originally proposed in 1789 but not put into place until 1992 — over 200 years later.
Article V of the U.S. Constitution outlines the procedure for modifying, or amending, its content. It states there are technically two ways to amend the Constitution. The first requires that both houses of Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) agree by a two-thirds vote on an amendment.
The next step is to have the proposed amendment ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures (or, in rare instances, by special state conventions). The second method has never been utilized in the Constitution’s history. It requires that two-thirds of the states call for a special constitutional convention during which the amendment is proposed. Three-fourths of the states must then ratify the amendment for it to become official.
Clearly, amendments to the Constitution do not come easily. The 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, emerged from the ashes of the Civil War and was ratified Dec. 18, 1865. The 19th Amendment (ratified Aug. 26, 1920) granted women the right to vote after more than a century of lobbying and activism.
In recent history, the United States has been embroiled in a debate over whether there should be an amendment to the Constitution that would define marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman. This debate is a direct result of the decision by some state courts that same-sex couples cannot be denied the benefits and recognition of a legal marriage.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage to be a “legal union between one man and one woman.” The Supreme Court struck down a part of DOMA in the case Windsor v. U.S. in 2013, stating that states had to recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in parts of the country where they were legal. Now, they will be recognized in all 50 states.
- Have students carefully read NewsHour Extra’s timeline of same-sex marriage laws. For more readings, check out NewsHour’s most recent coverage on same-sex marriage.
- Discuss the readings either as a class or in small groups.
- Next have students examine the 14th Amendment in order to answer the following questions:
- The 14th Amendment does not directly concern marriage. How could it guarantee the right to marry?
- How could the 14th Amendment be used to protect other civil liberties?
- Discuss the responses as a class.
I: News coverage of the issue
Have the students analyze The New York Times‘ recent headlines on same-sex marriage and respond to the following questions. The questions might be addressed in the form of an essay, through an oral presentation or by a graphic representation.
- In general, how much coverage has the issue received?
- How does print coverage, such as in these examples, differ from television or radio coverage? How are they similar?
- Ask students to read the piece “Major Survey Shows Most Americans Support Same-Sex Marriage.” Ask: how did the NYT use statistics in this article? How are people’s views surveyed and documented? How representative are those surveys?
II: Amending the Bill of Rights
Assign the students to write their own amendments to the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. In order to do so, they must first closely read the Bill of Rights and decide which amendment they wish to modify. Then, have them carefully compose a paragraph that: 1) directly addresses an issue in the amendment, and 2) offers specific modifications to the amendment. You may wish to use the following questions to guide the activity:
- The First Amendment provides the fundamental freedoms that so many Americans cherish. Is there any part of it that you could amend to either expand the freedoms that Americans have or to limit them?
- The Second Amendment concerns the right to “keep and bear arms.” How could this amendment be redefined to reflect our current society and the wide spread use of handguns?
- The Fourth Amendment is often criticized because it can limit the investigative powers of law-enforcement officials. If you were to amend the Fourth Amendment, how might you grant the executive branch (which includes law enforcement) more latitude in how they conduct investigations and arrests?
Doug DuBrin, an English and history teacher as well as an editor and writer.