The Supreme Court's recent decision NOT to hear cases regarding gay marriage remind me of the usefulness of current events when teaching about the Constitution. Students sometimes bring up gay marriage when talking about the principle of federalism, because it raises a key problem:
What happens when state powers (such as marriage, adoption, state university tuition, extradition, school desegregation) come into conflict with the fact that Americans are a mobile bunch and often cross state lines?
Having a class discussion on the constitutional issues associated with gay marriage (as opposed to moral issues) is a great way for students to understand how important social issues are sometimes "solved" by the Court. Gay rights can be a volatile topic in any classroom, but focusing on the constitutional issues--if you are careful and knowledgeable--has the potential to teach students about social change and how the Courts work to solve problems raised by federalism. At the end of this post, I have listed some links that might be helpful resources.
If you are reluctant to discuss gay marriage in your classroom, there are other issues/problems you can discuss that are less controversial.
Less controversial today, but wildly problematic during the Civil War, the creation of the state of West Virginia raises some interesting constitutional issues pertaining to Article IV. For more info, check out these two websites:
Or a more contemporary problem:
If states have to recognize the marriages and adoptions of other states, why do state universities usually charge more tuition for out-of-state residents and more for hunting or fishing licenses to out-of-state residents?
The Supreme Court has argued that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV (section 2) prevents states from placing unreasonable burdens on non-residents, while section 1 ensures that convicted criminals can’t escape justice by fleeing to another state, and that things like marriages, divorces and adoptions are valid when one crosses state lines. The Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV allows residents of one state to have certain privileges as a result of being a citizen of that state. That also explains why one can’t vote for state officials in another state. For a fuller answer, check out this site from Doug Linder, Professor of Law at University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School.
If you'd like some problems you can have students work on, check out this document, which I have revised from a worksheet in my files, so I'm not sure where I originally got it. But it's a good class activity that forces kids to READ THE CONSTITUTION. (If you need the answers, you can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Question #10 is tricky!!)
Gay marriage resources:
Also, the organization, freedomtomarry.org is not a neutral organization, but it does have a useful timeline that lists landmark cases and legislation.