Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Illustrate the sometimes conflicting preferences between the American public and the courts over civil liberties issues.
  • Examine how the public views controversial issues like flag burning, school prayer, and the pledge of allegiance.
  • Describe how political outcomes result from the institutional rules provided in the Constitution.

The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Press, and Religion

While not incorporated until the early twentieth century, the First Amendment contains a number of well-known and wildly popular civil liberties protections for American citizens.

Yet certain aspects of the amendment have proven controversial in recent years, as the Supreme Court’s interpretation and application of these provisions has put it at odds with majorities of the American public.

First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Answer the following question:

Name the two well-known “clauses” with respect to religion that appear in the First Amendment.


  • Does inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, which is recited by school children, violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment?
  • Should the government be able to outlaw the burning of the American flag?
  • Should voluntary prayer be legal in public schools?

The Supreme Court has heard cases on each of these issues. With respect to the pledge of allegiance, it did not directly decide the issue. In the other two cases, it decided in favor of individual expression (allowing flag burning and striking down religious practices in schools).

Public Opinion Data on First Amendment Issues

The table below presents public opinion data on these three constitutional issues. Study the figure with the following questions in mind:

  • Is the public generally unified or divided on these issues?
  • Does the perspective of the majority of the American public agree or disagree with the Court’s opinions?

Public Preferences on First Amendment Issues

Source: Gallup News Service. Moore, David W., “Public Favors Voluntary Prayer for Public Schools,” 26 August 2005,; Lyons, Linda, “Americans Indivisible on Pledge of Allegiance,” 4 May 2004,; and Carroll, Joseph, “Public Support for Constitutional Amendment on Flag Burning,” 29 June 2006,

Answer the following questions:

To what degree is there consensus among the American public on each of these issues?
Why do you think that there is more support for some of these initiatives than others?
4. Despite the fact that African Americans support affirmative action more than white respondents, a relatively large percentage of African Americans oppose affirmative action in hiring and promotion. What factors might explain this?

Examining the Policy Principle

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures.

The Constitution created a system of government in which an independent judiciary exists that is not popularly elected, thereby providing it with a degree of insulation necessary to protect the rights of political minorities. In each of the above cases, it appears that a majority of the public would do something different than what the Supreme Court has decided.

Answer the following questions:

5. How does the resolution of these First Amendment issues demonstrate the policy principle at work in terms of the role that institutions play?
6. In what ways do preferences enter into the story? In answering this question, be sure to discuss the preferences of both the justices of the Supreme Court and those of the American public.


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