George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Mock US Supreme Court Hearing: The Metal Bladed Kirpan and the Free Exercise Clause

A Mock US Supreme Court Hearing: The Metal Bladed Kirpan and the Free Exercise Clause

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I am a San Marino High School (CA) social studies teacher who in 2015 worked with fellow educator, Dr. Fran Chadwick from California State University San Marcos, to create a highly engaging civic learning opportunity designed for this country’s 12th grade US Government students.

This civic learning opportunity is entitled, Free Exercise:  A Case in Point and can be accessed from the website, Literacy and the Law, Mock Trials to Meet the Common Core.

Aside from what appears on this website, Dr. Chadwick and I also created a second highly engaging civic learning opportunity. This one is entitled A Mock US Supreme Court Hearing: The Metal Bladed Kirpan and the Free Exercise Clause.

For this civic learning opportunity, a classroom of students first spends one or two class periods learning about Sikhs, Sikhism, and the kirpan.

(A kirpan is a ceremonial metal bladed sword or dagger that is worn by Baptized Sikhs; with a Sikh being someone who believes in Sikhism a monotheistic religion which originated during the 15th century in the Punjab region of South Asia).

The students then spend five to six more class periods examining the question of whether a school district that prohibited Sikh school children from bringing a metal bladed kirpan onto school grounds violated the Sikh school children’s first amendment right to exercise their religion freely.

This civic learning opportunity culminates with the students in the class engaging in a moot US Supreme Court hearing. This moot Supreme Court hearing takes one class period.

Teachers wanting to have their students engage in this civic learning opportunity, should begin by providing their students with a copy of a fictional newspaper story entitled:

Ten Year Old Suspended From School for Carrying a Weapon.

The story “sets the stage” for the Supreme Court hearing.

After giving students sufficient time to read and process what appears in the story, the teacher should then inform the students that the parents of the ten year old have hired a lawyer, with the lawyer determined to “take this case all the way to the US Supreme Court.”

The teacher should then explain how a case makes its way to the USSC Court and what an attorney needs to do to prepare for his/her USSC presentation (write a brief and prepare an oral argument)

The teacher should then show the students a copy of the Petitioner and Respondent’s brief (with the argument section omitted.)

The teacher should then give students a chance to explain what arguments they would want to have appear in the brief.  ELA Common Core State Standards on speaking and listening and argument writing help to organize students to both write and present arguments as they follow a rubric outlining the quality criteria and expectations.

Then the teacher should divide up the class.

  • One or two students in the class will take on the role of Attorney for the Petitioner
  • One or two students in the class will take on the role of Attorney for the Respondent
  • One student in the class will take on the role of US Supreme Court Chief Justice
  • Eight students will take on the role of US Supreme Court Associate Justices
  • The remainder of the class will take on the roll of “internet bloggers.” To this end, the teacher should create the shell for the blog (using, the blog to document for the student bloggers’ friends and family what has taken place in the classroom leading up to the hearing; what took place at the hearing; how the court decided; and what the bloggers thought of the court's decision (this blog to also include photographs of the students at the hearing, interviews with the students before and after, etc.) 

To prepare the attorneys for oral argument, the teacher should provide council with the document entitled Petitioner and Respondent Oral Arguments - Planning Notes.

All attorneys, the chief justice, the associate justices, and the court clerk also will need to read, in advance of the hearing, the document entitled Hearing Handbook - Mock US Supreme Court Hearing.

To actually hold the hearing, students need simply to follow the script provided in the Hearing Handbook - Mock US Supreme Court Hearing.

Upon completion of the hearing, the court will deliberate in private. Then, a day or two later (more if needed), the Chief Justice will present the court’s “opinion” to the class.

This will require the court to have first completed the document entitled Supreme Court Written Opinion.

After the opinion has been released, the teacher should provide the student attorneys an opportunity to ask questions of the court.

A few days later, the teacher should call upon the bloggers to share with the class their blog postings. It should look something like this:

Close out by asking the students on a scale of 1-10 to what extent did they find this civic learning opportunity interesting, informative, and engaging (with a 10 being very interesting, informative, and engaging and a 1 being not at all interesting, informative, and engaging.) Students may use the rubric provided to assess both their writing and speaking and listening skills.

This civic learning opportunity is sure to engage your students like none other. I strongly recommend that teachers nationwide give it a go.

Any doubts, consider the following words from a letter sent to me by Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice after he read about the case I have described.

“It is a fascinating case (that you and Dr. Chadwick have created) . . . and should be a fine educational experience.”

I proudly hang this letter on the wall of my classroom!

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Wow! This is fascinating. Do you frontload what is the Supreme Court, the process of getting to the Supreme court and all the other aspects of law (like what is a "Petitioner"?)?

As a teacher and a lawyer this stuff is right up my alley, but I am wondering how you teach it all?

Thanks so much for this contribution.

Peter Paccone's picture
Peter Paccone
9-12th Grade Social Studies Teacher - San Marino High School

Yes. I did. Certainly. This project I assign while the students are learning about the Supreme Court.

In other words, it's only assigned after they have learned
1. The difference between a trial court and an appellate court
2. About the court's power of judicial review
3. That the court today consists of 9 judges with only 5 votes required for a win
4. About few famous USSC rulings (roe v. wade, texas v. johnson, etc.

So typically, I don't even introduce the case (via the fictional newspaper story) until we are about 5-6 weeks into the class.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

You already know I'm a huge fan of your work, Peter! Thanks for sharing this -- what an excellent way to teach so many valuable skills within an engaging and real-world project. Kudos!

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