Being An American

The Bill of Rights

Clock One fifty-minute class period

For the Bill of Rights to remain more than what Madison referred to as a “parchment barrier,” citizens must understand the purpose, content, and meaning of this important American document. In this lesson, students will identify and analyze the protections in the Bill of Rights as well as evaluate Supreme Court decisions in cases centered on Bill of Rights protections.

Founding Principles

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

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Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

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Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

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Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

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Property Rights

The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


The Constitution, with a system of separated powers, checks and balances, and an extended republic, was intended to better secure individual rights. Additional limitations on government were set forth in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Students will analyze scenarios for possible violations of those rights, and evaluate Supreme Court rulings in similar situations.


A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. - Thomas Jefferson (1774)

The Framers of the Bill of Rights did not purport to “create” rights. Rather, they designed the Bill of Rights to prohibit our Government from infringing rights and liberties presumed to be preexisting. - William J. Brennan (1989)

Critical Engagement Questions

How does the Bill of Rights protect freedom?


Students will:

  • Identify fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.
  • Analyze the connections and interdependence among the protections in the Bill of Rights.
  • Evaluate situations in which rights may be violated.
  • Appreciate the Bill of Rights and its protection of liberty.


CCE (5-8): IIA1, IVB1, VB1-2
CCE (9-12): IIA1, IIC1, IVC1, VB1-2
NCHS (5-12): Era 3: 3B; Era 10: 2E
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10


  • The Bill of Rights [Appendix C]
  • Handout A: The Value of Rights
  • Handout B: Bill of Rights Scenario Cards
  • Handout C: The Bill of Rights Today [optional]
  • Handout D: Life Without Rights for the Accused [optional]

Background 10 min. (day before)

  1. Distribute the Bill of Rights (Appendix C). Ask students to translate the key protections of each amendment into simple, modern phrasing. Use the board or overhead and have students take notes as you discuss each protection. See the Answer Key for suggestions.
  2. Have students use their annotated copies of the Bill of Rights to complete Handout A: The Value of Rights individually.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Ask students to share and explain some of their responses to Handout A. Then engage the class in a large group discussion to answer the questions:
    • What similarities do you find among the rights people generally ranked as most important?
    • Do you think responses might change based on the following factors: Age—would the rights have a similar ranking if the students were adults? Place in history—would the rights have a similar ranking if the students lived during the Founding era? The Civil War? The Progressive Era? Family—would the rights have a similar ranking if the students’ parents were lawyers? Ministers? Convicted felons? Members of the military?
    • Why is it wrong for governments to infringe on these individual rights?
  2. Conclude the discussion by reminding students that many of the rights in the Bill of Rights are natural human rights all people are born with, and that nobody should have to live without. The Bill of Rights was written to protect individuals from government infringing on those rights.

Activities 30 min.

  1. Divide the class into twelve groups. Give each group one Card from Handout B: Bill of Rights Scenario Cards. Referencing their copies of the Bill of Rights, groups should write their answers to the following questions: 1) Which right (if any) is being violated? and 2) Which amendment (if any) offers protection against such a violation?
  2. After two or three minutes, have groups pass their Scenario Card another group. Continue until each group has responded to every Scenario Card.
  3. Ask one member of each group to line up in the front of the room in order of amendments to create a “living Bill of Rights.” (Some amendments will have more than one representative in line.)
  4. Have each representative read their group’s Scenario Card and share their group’s response. See the Answer Key for correct answers.
  5. When going over Scenario Cards which focus on Supreme Court cases, ask students to evaluate the Court’s ruling. Did the Court decide the constitutional question correctly?

Wrap-up 10 min.

Ask students if the protections for individual rights that were added to the Constitution in 1791 are out of date, or if they are still important today. What current issues highlight the importance of Bill of Rights protections?


  1. Distribute Handout C: The Bill of Rights Today. Have students research current events that illustrate the rights and protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Students can begin their research by reading “Bill of Rights in the News” stories updated daily at:
  2. Have students read the narrative on Handout D: “Life Without Rights for the Accused,” which tells a fictional story of an accused person living in a society where government does not honor the criminal procedure protections in the Bill of Rights. Have them identify the violations of rights. Then ask them to write their own “Life Without…” story. For example: “Life Without Freedom of Expression,” (which would include speech, press, assembly and petition); “Life Without Freedom of Religion,” or “Life Without Protection for Private Property.” Student may then:
    • Trade papers and challenge a friend to find the violations in their story
    • Give the class buzzers or flags; have one student read his or her story aloud while the rest of the class buzzes or raises a flag when a violation has occurred.
    • Combine stories into one long series of narratives which they can share with other classes.


Assign students to work in pairs to research one of the topics (e.g. criminal procedure, religion, expression, etc.) from the Bill of Rights in the News Activities section of the Bill of Rights Institute Web site. Have them present a five-minute summary of major positions on the issue, and conclude with their opinions. Activities can be found at:

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