A Crash Course in Tolerance

Rosie Heffernan's students are no dummies when it comes to the U.S. Constitution -- as their parents are learning

Guazzini says her parents take "a more conservative" view of the issue than she does. "They would rather their children not find pornographic material on the Internet.... They find [the ruling] to be a little too liberal."

Often to the chagrin of their parents, Heffernan's budding constitutional scholars have also taken up the issue of abortion. They insist that the Catholic Church's moral stance against abortion be kept separate from the legal aspect of the issue. Even though most of her students personally oppose abortion, they defend a woman's constitutional right to have one.

Last month at the District 18 competition team member Alejandra Chamorro explained to a panel of three lawyers how the Supreme Court arrived at its 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion: "In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ... said that since the fetus cannot live outside the woman's body, it is a part of her own body. So it is a privacy within her own body. And we have to protect the right of that woman to do whatever she wants with her own body, because it is her own."

The most daunting volley of questions at the district level was hurled by two lawyers from the law firm of Holland and Knight, and one from the firm of Kozyak Tropin and Throckmorton. The last, Adam Raybin, bore down on the Lourdes team, asking why the Supreme Court should be able to strike down a law passed by a popularly elected Congress. "Do you believe that Congress has the right to legislate away the current right to burn a flag in protest? Those people in office are representing the will of the people, and if they're put there based upon your vote or the majority of the people's vote, don't they have a right to pass, even if it be upon their own moral beliefs or the majority's moral beliefs, what they think is right?"

After a brief pause, seventeen-year-old Ana del Cerro stated that, yes, lawmakers have the right to pass laws, but then rattled back: "Their moral beliefs could infringe on their decisions, and as I have previously said, the judicial branch is there to objectively -- not subjectively, objectively -- interpret the Constitution and the people's rights. Because of the fact that their moral beliefs may come into an issue -- or their political passions -- that is why it is very necessary for there to be somewhat of a check through judicial review."

In the end, Our Lady of Lourdes took home a first-place trophy for District 18, beating MAST Academy and Southwest High. (Jackson won in District 17, Palmetto in District 20, and Killian in District 21.)

Outside the county commission chambers, where the results of the district competition were announced, Heffernan revealed a key to her strategy: "The one thing I always try to teach them is that you can't think with your heart. You have to think with your head." During a round of competition last year, for example, the father of one student lowered his head in anguish as his daughter explained how a correct interpretation of the Bill of Rights would protect homosexuals against discrimination, just as it would protect any group.

"It was the most wonderful answer, and all she did was stand for constitutional principles," Heffernan recalls, beaming. "And when they were finished, one of the judges said, 'I wish that if I ever need a lawyer, you would be available.'

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