Estimated Time
one to two class periods, plus extended activities
Grade Level
Grades 9-12



The 14th Amendment

Bill of Rights

To examine amendments to the constituiton through the issue of gay marriage.
Through this lesson, the student will come to understand the history and process of amending the U.S. Constitution, particularly in light of the current issue facing the courts of legalizing gay marriage.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution outlines the procedure for modifying, or amending, its content. 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.

As Article V 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.

Currently, the United States is 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 homosexuals 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." Many other political leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, have aligned themselves with this.

President Obama supports full civil unions, federal recognition of LGBT couples and voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2006 but has said that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Several religious institutions, most recently the Catholic Church, have formally renounced the idea of same-sex marriage, referring to religious texts that define marriage as solely the union of a man and woman.

Supporters of gay marriage stress, though, that not only are they seeking to protect civil liberties (often citing the 14th Amendment), they are also seeking to protect their families; over a million children nationwide are currently in the care of homosexual parents.

The way the federal laws are currently written, gay parents in times of crisis (such as when a child is seriously sick or injured and must be hospitalized) are not afforded the same rights as married (or legally divorced) straight parents.

Several states now have gay marriage or grant rights to gay couples under civil unions. If history is a guide, an actual amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage is unlikely. Nonetheless, the issue is bound to spark debate for some time, both within the courts and in the public.

1. Have students carefully read the background information and the the latest headlines online. For more detailed information, have students look at the Online NewsHour Special Report:The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage.

2. Discuss both readings either as a class or in small groups.

3. Next have students examine the 14th Amendment in order to answer the following questions:

  • The 14th Amendment does not directly concern marriage. How, then, could it be interpreted as guaranteeing the right to marry?
  • In what ways could this amendment actually preserve marriage as being only between a man and a woman? In other words, how could it be used to support both sides of the issue?
  • How could the 14th Amendment be used to protect other civil liberties? Does it imply protection for the rights of children? For convicted criminals?
4. Discuss the responses as a class.

Extension Activities
I: Marriage as an institution

In order to have the students understand the institution of marriage on a deeper level, have them discuss:

  • In our society, why do people get married? Are there other reasons beyond the traditional?
  • If a heterosexual married couple chose not to -- or could not -- have children, would their union be different from a gay couple? Does the ability to have children in part define the institution of marriage?
  • If gay marriage becomes widely accepted, could it lead to the appeal for the acceptance of other nontraditional forms of marriage (such as between minors)?
II:News coverage of the issue

Have the students analyze the recent media coverage of the issue of gay 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 media given to the issue?
  • How is the print coverage different from television or radio coverage? Which is more comprehensive?
  • Comparing the coverage from other nations, what observations can you make? Do more secular nations view the issue differently from nations with a more religious population?
  • How have statistics been used by the media in this case? How often are people's views surveyed and documented? How representative are those surveys? How are the statistics used to defend various groups' stances on the issue?
III: 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?
Thematic Standards Standard

4: Individual Development and Identity Standard

5: Individuals, Groups and Institutions Standard

6: Power, Authority and Governance Standard

9: Global Connections Standard

10: Civic Ideals and Practices

Disciplinary Standards Standard

1: History Standard

3: Civics and Government

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