For Schools

Grades 7-9: Equal Protection
Different Treatment for Different Folks?
by David T. Naylor

(download this entire lesson as a word doc.)


The quest for equality is one of the salient themes of American history. The Declaration of Independence boldly asserts that "all men are created equal" but no such phrase appears in the Constitution of the United States. Neither the Constitution drafted in 1787 nor the Bill of Rights which was added in 1791 even include the word equality much less provide a specific guarantee of it. But, during the two centuries since then, much has changed. The heroic efforts of African-Americans, women, and others to throw off the shackles of law-sanctioned discrimination and segregation have helped to make the concept of equality a cornerstone of our legal system and more of a reality in the lives of all Americans.

This strategy begins with students examining a graphic depiction of government-enforced inequality. The poster showing two drinking fountains, one labeled "white" and the other "colored," is a vivid reminder of just how recently law-sanctioned segregation was a fixture of American life. (This poster can be purchased from the ABA for $4.95; order on-line or call 1-800-285-2221 and ask for product code 468-0033.

The poster is a compelling reminder of how much of an anachronism this scene has become. In contrast to many parents and teachers, students in school today have not experienced de jure segregation. Many students are unfamiliar with such scenes and practices and the struggles which led to their abolition. Yet that knowledge is a vital part of understanding the growth and development of this country and its way of life. Students need to understand this part of our nation’s history. It is too significant to ignore. The "separate fountains" poster is an appropriate vehicle for initiating such a unit.

An important question suggested by the poster is whether or not the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires all people to be treated in the same manner. Many students (and adults) are likely to be under the impression that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits differential treatment. That impression, however, is incorrect. The clause does not require identical treatment for all persons in all situations. Legal distinctions are possible and even desirable, for in some circumstances treating all people the same is inherently unequal. Controversy occurs when persons allege they are being treated differently than others.

This sample lesson is intended to be an introductory lesson for a unit focusing on the concept of equal protection, the practice of differential treatment under law, and the legal tests that have been developed for determining if and when differential treatment violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

David T. Naylor is Professor of Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Cincinnati. This strategy is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the magazine Update on Law-Related Education (Fall 1991).

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>>Lesson Procedure
>>Handout: Is This Legal?

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