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Pierce v. Society of Sisters

Pierce v. Society of Sisters
Argued March 16–17, 1925
Decided June 1, 1925
Full case name Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
Citations 268 U.S. 510 (more)
45 S. Ct. 571; 69 L. Ed. 1070; 1925 U.S. LEXIS 589; 39 A.L.R. 468
Prior history 296 F. 928 (D. Ore. 1924)
The Oregon Compulsory Education Act that required attendance at public schools, forbidding private school attendance, was held unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority McReynolds, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Compulsory Education Act (Act), 1922 Or. Laws § 5259; U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

Pierce, Governor of Oregon, et al. v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was an early 20th-century United States Supreme Court decision that significantly expanded coverage of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. 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.


  • Background 1
  • Facts of the case 2
  • Arguments 3
  • Decision 4
  • Implications 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


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, 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 schools, including Catholic schools.[1]

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:

  1. Children who were mentally or physically unable to attend school
  2. Children who had graduated from eighth grade
  3. Children living more than a specified distance by road from the nearest school
  4. Children being home-schooled or tutored (subject to monitoring by the local school district)
  5. Children attending a state-recognized private school

The Act was amended by the 1922 initiative,[2] 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.

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.

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:

Appellee Hill Military Academy .... owns considerable real and personal property, some useful only for school purposes. The business and incident good will are very valuable. In order to conduct its affairs, long time contracts must be made for supplies, equipment, teachers, and pupils. Appellants, law officers of the state and county, have publicly announced that the Act of November 7, 1922, is valid and have declared their intention to enforce it. By reason of the statute and threat of enforcement appellee's business is being destroyed and its property depreciated .... The Academy's bill states the foregoing facts and then alleges that the challenged act contravenes the corporation's rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pierce, Governor of Oregon, et al. v. Hill Military Academy, companion case, (268 U.S. 510, 532–533).

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.


The 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 appellees were corporations, not individuals, the Fourteenth Amendment did not directly apply to them. In addition, they asserted, the revenues 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.

The appellees 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 1 June 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[s] 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 or not 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 appellants 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 beginning of a period of more liberal interpretation of due process; specifically, the Court recognized consciously that it had allowed the Fourteenth Amendment to apply to entities other than individuals, and had broadened the list of liberties or rights which it protected. Over the course of the next half century, that list would be extended to include the right to marry, to have children, to marital privacy, to have an abortion, and others.

Because the statute struck down by Pierce was primarily intended to eliminate parochial schools, Justice Anthony Kennedy has suggested that Pierce could have been decided on First Amendment grounds.[3] Indeed, as mentioned, that was the primary legal argument advanced by the lawyers representing the Sisters. However, when Pierce was decided, the First Amendment had not yet been deemed applicable against the states. That event occurred a mere seven days later, in the case of Gitlow v. New York.

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.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Howard, J. Paul. "Cross-Border Reflections, Parents’ Right to Direct Their Children's Education Under the U.S. and Canadian Constitutions", Education Canada, v41 n2 p36-37 Sum 2001.
  2. ^ See the text of the amended Act at (accessed 20 December 2005)
  3. ^ Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 95 (2000): "Pierce and Meyer, had they been decided in recent times, may well have been grounded upon First Amendment principles protecting freedom of speech, belief, and religion" (Kennedy, J., dissenting).
  4. ^ Appleby, R. Scott (November 1989). "Keeping Them out of the Hands of the State: Two Critiques of Christian Schools".  

Further reading

  • Abrams, Paula. (2009). Cross Purposes: Pierce v. Society of Sisters and the Struggle over Compulsory Public Education. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-11700-0.
  • Alley, Robert S. (1999). The Constitution & Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 41–44.  
  • Bernstein, David (2011). Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights against Progressive Reform. Chapter 6. Chicago: University of Chicago 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

External links

  • Text of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 
  • "SUPREME COURT: Oregon and Oregonians," TIME
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