AP US Government and Politics Scotus Comparison

AP U.S. Government and Politics: SCOTUS Comparison

Question 3 of the AP U.S. Government and Politics free response section is the SCOTUS Comparison FRQ. It begins with a two-paragraph stimulus that describes the background and holding for a non-required Supreme Court case. Don’t worry: you are not expected to have any outside knowledge of the non-required case. All the information about the case needed to answer the question will be provided. (Note: Lists of College Board’s 9 foundational documents and 15 required SCOTUS cases, and some key information about each, are available in the back of this book.)

The prompts that follow the stimulus will ask you to relate the non-required case to one of the required SCOTUS cases. Specifically:

  • Part A will often ask you to identify a constitutional clause or principle that is relevant to both cases.
  • Part B will often require you to compare or contrast the two cases, perhaps asking you to explain why the facts of the cases resulted in different holdings.
  • Part C will likely require you to apply the case’s ruling to a political action or principle. For instance, you could be asked how citizens could react to a ruling with which they disagree.

SCOTUS Comparison Strategies

Because it compares the reasoning of two court cases, the SCOTUS Comparison question may be the most abstract and complex prompt you encounter on the free-response section. It is therefore extra important to use the Kaplan Method in order to organize your ideas and logically think through your response.

Also, consider these factors that are specific to the SCOTUS Com- parison FRQ:

  • The stimulus will explain a new case to you. (Remember, you are not expected to have any outside knowledge of the new case.) Since court case backgrounds and holdings are nuanced, pay very close attention to the details and reasoning of the new case. Consider writing a brief paraphrase of the case holding in your own words.
  • The questions will always refer to one of the required SCOTUS cases. It may be helpful to spend a few moments reviewing what you know about the required case; jot down the main idea of the required case’s holding before getting too far into the questions.
    • If asked why the cases resulted in similar or different holdings, carefully consider the background of both cases: what essential difference or similarity between the two led the Court to the individual holdings?

Sample SCOTUS Comparison Question

In Utah in 1874, George Reynolds was indicted by a grand jury and later found guilty of bigamy (marriage to more than one person) under the federal Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, passed by Congress in 1862, which prohibited residents of territories to marry someone while still married to someone else. Reynolds, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), presented himself as a test case to challenge the Morrill Act, arguing that the law violated LDS Church members’ First Amendment freedom of religion rights. Reynolds argued that it was his religious duty to marry multiple wives, and thus the practice should be protected under the First Amendment.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, and in Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Court unanimously upheld Reynolds’s conviction. In its holding that the Morrill Act did not violate the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom, the court distinguished between religious belief and religious action. While Congress cannot legislate against the former, it can regulate religious action; in this case, the holding justified the prohibition of the action of bigamy based on the tradition of English law. In addition, the Court concluded that “to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” perhaps leading to claiming practices like human sacrifice as protected religious actions.

Based on the information given, respond to Parts A, B, and C.

(A) Identify the constitutional clause that is common to both Reynolds v. United States (1879) and Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).
(B) Based on the constitutional clause identified in Part A, explain why the facts of Wisconsin v. Yoder led to a different holding than the holding in Reynolds v. United States.
(C) Describe a political action that members of the public who disagree with the holding in Reynolds v. United States could take to attempt to impact the legality of bigamy.

Step 1: Analyze the Prompt

Since court cases involve abstract reasoning and many details, learning about new cases is a complex task. To help keep the information from the stimulus straight, underline or jot down the key facts and write a paraphrase of the ruling. The following is an example of brief notes a high-scoring writer might make.

Key details:

  • R found guilty of violating federal law against bigamy
  • R claimed law violated 1st Am. right, since bigamy part of LDS Church belief


  • conviction upheld, law did not violate 1st Am.., religious beliefs v. actions, actions may be limited or otherwise anything could be claimed to be a justified religious action

After analyzing the questions for the content and action words (in this case, identify, explain, describe), review the required SCOTUS case (introduced in the question stem). Consider writing a few quick notes to refresh your memory about the required case so that you can keep the cases straight and make a solid plan for answering the various parts of the prompt.

Wisconsin v. Yoder:

  • Amish children stopped attending school after 8th grade, breaking WI law
  • Amish believed more edu. bad
  • Court ruled with Amish parents: requiring more edu. violated free exercise clause (by 14th Am.) b/c action based on sincere belief and not harmful to students/society

Step 2: Plan Your Response

The following is an example of how a high-scoring writer might plan an answer to this question, including the writer’s thought process and notes.

Part A: Free exercise clause.
Part B: Need to note the difference in the reasoning of the rulings, and what led to differ- ent holdings.

  • R v. US: law against bigamy const. b/c not all religious actions are protected by free ex. clause, only beliefs; bigamy can be prohibited based on tradition – action not protected
  • Y v. WI: law requiring more edu. unconst. b/c stopping edu. based on sincere belief & not harmful – action protected

Part C: Need to write about what action someone can take if they disagree with a federal law.

  • petition Congress members to change law
  • elect new reps. who will change law

Step 3 & 4: Write Your Response and Proofread

Use your plan to write each part of the response, and briskly skim for errors when finished.

See the following high-scoring response, and be sure to read the points in the explanation about what makes this response effective. Think about what features you can incorporate into your own free-response answers.

Sample High-Scoring Response

Both cases concern the free exercise clause of the 1st Amendment, since both have to do with laws that prohibit acting in accordance with religious beliefs. However, the rulings in the cases differed due to the Court’s interpretation of the religious actions involved. In general, the government cannot pass a law that prohibits someone from exercising their religion. In Reynolds v. US, Reynolds argued that the federal law against bigamy violated his right to practice his religion, believing the practice to be a duty as a member of the LDS Church. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, some Amish parents had stopped sending their children to public school after 8th grade, believing that further education was unnecessary and even harmful to their faith. The Court sided against Reynolds, but with the Amish parents. In Reynolds, the Court determined that not all religious actions are protected by the 1st Amendment; otherwise, people could claim that any action, no matter how controversial, was necessary for practicing their religion. Although the government cannot legislate against belief, it could, in this case based on tradition, legislate against the action of bigamy. However, in Wisconsin, the Court held that the state could not force the students to continue in public education because the action was based on a sincere, non-harmful, religious belief. Thus, the Amish action, unlike bigamy, was a protected religious action under the 1st Amendment.

As with any Court ruling about a federal law, citizens can take political action to protest it, such as trying to influence Congress. Citizens could attempt to get Congress to change the law by writing and trying to persuade their representatives. Also, citizens could draw attention to the issue during future elections and attempt to elect candidates who would support changing the law prohibiting bigamy.

Sample Response Explanation

Note a couple of the successful features of the high-scoring sample response:

  • Organization: The writer combines the responses for Parts A and B into the same paragraph, which is effective since the response for Part A is very brief. Although the first paragraph of the response is lengthy, it reflects the complexity of the explanation required for Part B.
  • Addressing each action word: Part B’s explanation requires both a summary of the required case, Wisconsin v. Yoder, and a comparison explaining the difference between the two cases. When you see the action words like describe or explain, be sure to include a full, detailed discussion that covers all relevant points/sides. Although the question may seem to be asking for only one item, the rubric may score the question out of two points due to its complexity.

Scoring for Question 3: 4 points (1 + 2 + 1)

Part A (1 point)
One point for identifying the free exercise clause (of the First Amendment) as relevant in both cases.

Part B (2 points)
One point for identifying relevant facts about Wisconsin v. Yoder.

  • Example facts: ruling held that requiring students to attend public school past 8th grade violated Amish parents’ right to free exercise of their religion
One point for explaining why the facts in both cases led to different holdings.

  • Example explanations: both cases concern free exercise of religious actions based on beliefs; in Reynolds, the Court determined that not every action that is claimed to be religious is protected; in Reynolds, the action was determined to violate traditional law, while in Wisconsin, the Court found no justification to prohibit the action, which they deemed was based on legitimate religious beliefs and did not result in the students burdening society; the scenario in Wisconsin did not fit the extreme examples of constitutionally limited religious actions as outlined in Reynolds
Part C (1 point)
One point for describing a valid political action of dissenters.

  • Example actions: petitioning their representatives to change the law prohibiting bigamy, campaigning for/voting for candidates to Congress who would support legislation to permit bigamy, forming an interest group focused on the issue, organizing protests to draw attention to the Supreme Court ruling

Learn more about the other free response questions on the AP U.S. Government and Politics exam.
Concept Application  •  Quantitative Analysis  •  Argument Essay