Monday, September 1, 2014

Using SCOTUS in the Classroom

By Erin Roberts, University of South Carolina

As the Fall semester nears, I have been thinking about how the infamous Hobby Lobby case might figure into my teaching. After exploring different aspects of the case, I decided that it could be well used as an example that highlights the importance of classification. I often like to spend one class session covering a theoretical concept and follow up in the next class with some illustrative data for students to analyze, sight-unseen. Judging by social media in the weeks following the Court’s decision, the Hobby Lobby case seems just controversial enough to engage students’ attention. I hope that the basic procedure outlined below provides some general resources for bringing SCOTUS to the classroom in addition to offering specific guidance for the Hobby Lobby case.

Step One: Select a case and decide how you want to use it

The Oyez Project at Chicago-Kent College of Law is an excellent resource for SCOTUS cases. It contains a searchable index as well as summaries, transcripts, audio files, and the occasional “deep dive” into landmark cases. After examining the oral arguments of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, it seemed to me that listening to the arguments could be a good way for students to think about the principles of social constructionism and to see the connection between human interests and category formation. In particular, I will ask them to consider whether they regard certain practices as religious because they are intrinsically religious or because they count as religious in specific situations and toward specific, interest-oriented ends.

Step Two: Equip students with related theoretical concepts

We will spend one class session discussing Chapter Two of Craig Martin’s Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, which provides an undergraduate-friendly introduction to animism and essentialism, while also explaining social constructionism and category formation through relatable examples. With these concepts in hand, students will be ready to think about SCOTUS’s attempts to distinguish religious institutions and practices from non-religious ones.

Step Three: Prepare students to encounter the data

Homework for the follow-up class is designed to prepare students to understand the basic terminology of the data. Before arriving at class, they will (1) write down what they take to be the general aims of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, (2) read two short texts—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA)—and have a working knowledge of the terms “substantial burden,” “compelling interest,” “least restrictive means,” and (3) read a one-page summary of Employment Division v. Smith.

Step Four: Present the data and do a guided analysis (I planned for a 75 minute class) 

Each student will receive a copy of the Hobby Lobby case summary and we will listen together to the first half of the oral argument (41 minutes). Students will be asked to write down answers to the following questions as they listen: How does the discourse distinguish “religious” from “non-religious” groups, institutions, practices, beliefs, principles, and objections? Do the distinctions rely upon an essentialist definition of religion? Whose interests are served by the kinds of distinctions made in the discourse? If you were one of the SCOTUS justices, what would you have contributed to the discussion, and why? Following the audio clip, students will have 2-3 minutes of silence to collect their thoughts before engaging in discussion. They will then break into smaller discussion groups (4-5 students per group) with a simple directive: “Agree on some answers, and make sure that they’re good!” I usually circulate among the groups, providing guidance as needed, but generally just letting them think through their thoughts together. If time permits, the groups may present their answers to the rest of the class (and knowing that they may be called upon to do so usually keeps them on task!). I have found that if I have prepared them well in the prior class and can restrain myself from filling in the silence, they will find their way through the questions soon enough and, through practice, learn to think critically about the data that surround them every day.

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