''Pierce v. Society of Sisters'', 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was an early 20th-century United States Supreme Court
decision striking down an Oregon statute that required all children to attend public school
. The decision significantly expanded coverage of the Due Process Clause
in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
to recognize personal civil liberties. The case has been cited as a precedent in more than 100 Supreme Court cases, including ''Roe v. Wade
'', and in more than 70 cases in the courts of appeals
After World War I, some states concerned about the influence of immigrants and foreign values looked to public schools for help. The states drafted laws designed to use schools to promote a common American culture.
On November 7, 1922, under Oregon Governor Walter M. Pierce
, the voters of Oregon
passed an initiative
amending Oregon Law
Section 5259, the Compulsory Education Act
. The citizens' initiative was primarily aimed at eliminating parochial school
s, including Catholic schools.
The Compulsory Education Act, before amendment, had required Oregon children between eight and sixteen years of age to attend public school
. There were several exceptions incorporated in this Act:
#Children who were mentally or physically unable to attend school
#Children who had graduated from eighth grade
#Children living more than a specified distance by road from the nearest school
#Children being home-schooled
ed (subject to monitoring by the local school district
#Children attending a state-recognized private school
The Act was amended by the 1922 initiative, which would have taken effect on September 1, 1926, eliminated the exception for attendees of private schools. Private schools viewed this as an attack on their right to enroll students and do business in the state of Oregon. The act was promoted by groups such as the Knights of Pythias
, the Federation of Patriotic Societies, and the Oregon Good Government League, as well as organizations that embodied anti-Catholic sentiment at the time such as the Orange Order
and the Ku Klux Klan
Two sorts of opposition to the law emerged. One was from nonsectarian
private schools, such as the Hill Military Academy
, which were primarily concerned with the loss of their revenue
. This loss was felt almost immediately, as parents began withdrawing their children from private schools in the belief that these would soon cease to exist. The other was from religious
private schools, such as those run by the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
, which were concerned about the right of parents to send their children to parochial schools. ACLU
Associate Director Roger Nash Baldwin
, a personal friend of Luke E. Hart
, the then–Supreme Advocate and future Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus
, offered to join forces with the Knights to challenge the law. The Knights of Columbus pledged an immediate $10,000 to fight the law and any additional funds necessary to defeat it.
Facts of the case
The Sisters of the Holy Names and Hill Military Academy separately sued Walter Pierce
, the governor of Oregon
, along with Isaac H. Van Winkle
, the state attorney general
, and Stanley Myers, district attorney
of Multnomah County
(of which Portland
is the county seat
, and where both the Sisters and the Academy were headquartered). The two cases, heard and decided together, were slanted along slightly different lines. The Sisters' case alleged that "the enactment conflicts with the right of parents to choose schools where their children will receive appropriate mental and religious training, the right of the child to influence the parents' choice of a school, the right of schools and teachers therein to engage in a useful business or profession." (268 U.S. 510, 532).
The Sisters' case rested only secondarily on the assertion that their business would suffer based on the law. That is, its primary allegation was that the State of Oregon
was violating specific First Amendment
rights (such as the right to freely practice one's religion
). Their case alleged only secondarily that the law infringed on Fourteenth Amendment
rights regarding protection of property (namely, the school's contracts
with the families).
The Hill Military Academy, on the other hand, proposed this as their only allegation
The schools won their case before a three-judge panel of the Oregon District Court, which granted an injunction
against the Act. The defendants appealed their case directly to the Supreme Court of the United States
. The Court heard the case on 16 and 17 March 1925.
s' lawyers, Willis S. Moore for the state and district attorney
s, and George E. Chamberlain and Albert H. Putney, for the governor, argued that the state had an overriding interest to oversee and control the providers of education
to the children of Oregon. One of them even went so far as to call Oregonian students "the State's children". They contended that the State's interest in overseeing the education of citizens and future voters was so great that it overrode the parents' right to choose a provider of education for their child, and the right of the child to influence the parent in this decision. With respect to the appellees' claims that their loss of business infringed on Fourteenth Amendment
rights, the appellants' lawyers countered that since appellee
s were corporations
, not individuals
, the Fourteenth Amendment did not directly apply to them. In addition, they asserted, the revenue
s of a corporation were not property
, and thus did not fall under the due process
clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
. Finally, they argued that since the law
was not scheduled to take effect until September of the following year, the suits
were brought prematurely — to protect against a possible coming danger, not to rectify a current problem.
s, represented by Hall S. Lusk
, replied that they were not contesting the right of the state to monitor their children's education
, only its right to absolute control of their choice of educational system
:''No question is raised concerning the power of the state reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.'' (268 U.S. 510, 534)
Further, they replied that although the state had a powerful interest in their children's education, the interest was not so strong as to require the state's mandate
of an educational choice of this sort. Barring a great emergency, they claimed, the state had no right to require their children to attend, or not to attend, any particular sort of school.
The Court deliberated for about 10 weeks before issuing their decision on June 1, 1925. The Court unanimously upheld the lower court's decision, and the injunction against the amended Act.
Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds
wrote the opinion of the Court. He stated that children were not "the mere creature
of the state" (268 U.S. 510, 535), and that, by its very nature, the traditional American understanding of the term ''liberty'' prevented the state from forcing students to accept instruction only from public schools
. He stated that this responsibility
belonged to the child's parents or guardians
, and that the ability to make such a choice was a "liberty" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
With respect to the discussion of whether the schools' contracts with parents constituted property protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, McReynolds agreed that since the schools were corporations, they were not technically entitled to such protections. However, he continued,
:''they have business and property for which they claim protection. These are threatened with destruction through the unwarranted compulsion which appellants are exercising over present and prospective patrons of their schools. And this court has gone very far to protect against loss threatened by such action.'' (268 U.S. 510, 535)
McReynolds also agreed that businesses are not generally entitled to protection against loss of business subsequent to "exercise of proper power of the state" (268 U.S. 510, 535). However, citing a number of relevant business
and property law
cases, he concluded that the passage of the revised Act was not "proper power" in this sense, and constituted unlawful interference with the freedom of both schools and families.
In response to the claims by the appellant
s that the suits were premature, attempting to prevent rather than to rectify a problem, Justice McReynolds simply referred them to the evidence
provided by the appellees showing that the schools were already suffering falling enrollments.
This decision marked the start of the Supreme Court
's recognition that due process
protected individual liberties; specifically, the Court recognized consciously that the Fourteenth Amendment
applies to entities other than individuals, and recognized the scope of liberties or rights which it protected included personal civil liberties. Over the course of the next half century, that list would come to include the right to marry, to have children, to marital privacy or to have an abortion
Because the statute struck down by ''Pierce v. Society of Sisters'' was primarily intended to eliminate parochial schools
, Justice Anthony Kennedy has suggested that the case could have been decided on First Amendment grounds. Indeed, as mentioned, that was the primary legal argument advanced by the lawyers representing the Sisters. Seven days later, in the case of ''Gitlow v. New York
'', the Supreme Court confirmed that the First Amendment was applicable against the states.
The right of parents to control their children's education without state interference became a "cause célèbre" following the case, and religious groups proactively defended this right from state encroachment. R. Scott Appleby
wrote in the ''American Journal of Education
'' that this led to a "remarkably liberal" education policy wherein religious schools are not subjected to state accreditation but only to "minimal state health and safety" laws.
* List of Oregon ballot measures
*Abrams, Paula. (2009). Cross Purposes: Pierce v. Society of Sisters and the Struggle over Compulsory Public Education.
' University of Michigan Press. .
* Donald P. Kommers and Michael J. Wahoske, eds. "Freedom and Education: Pierce V. Society of Sisters Reconsidered," (Center for Civil Rights, University of Notre Dame Law School, 1978) 111 pages
Category:1925 in United States case law
Category:United States Supreme Court cases
Category:United States Supreme Court cases of the Taft Court
Category:United States education case law
Category:United States substantive due process case law
Category:Legal history of Oregon
Category:Roman Catholic Ecclesiastical Province of Portland
Category:1925 in Oregon
Category:1925 in education
Category:Oregon ballot measures
Category:Education in Oregon
Category:Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
Category:United States privacy case law
Category:Right to privacy under the United States Constitution