Pierce v. Society of Sisters

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Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary was an early 20th century United States Supreme Court decision which overturned Oregon Compulsory Public Education, Measure 6 (1922).

The case has been cited as a precedent in over 100 Supreme Court cases, including Roe v. Wade, as well as in more than 70 cases in the United States courts of appeal.


On November 7, 1922, the voters of Oregon passed a ballot measure amending Oregon Law Section 5259, the Compulsory Education Act. The ballot measure was primarily aimed at eliminating parochial schools, including Catholic schools. It is thought that many Protestants felt that religious schools prevented assimilation.[1]

The Compulsory Education Act, prior to amendment, had required all 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 as amended by the 1922 referendum,[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.

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 March 16 and 17, 1925.


The appellants' lawyers, Willis S. Moore for the state and district attorneys, 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 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 June 1, 1925.

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, Justice 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)

Justice 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.

The Court unanimously upheld the lower court's decision, and the injunction against the amended Act.


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 in 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 Society of 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. Current Supreme Court doctrine prohibits the judiciary from using the Due Process Clause instead of an applicable specific constitutional provision.[3]



  1. Howard, J. Paul. "Cross-Border Reflections, Parents’ Right to Direct Their Childrens’ Education Under the U.S. and Canadian Constitutions" (dead link), Education Canada, v41 n2 p36-37 Sum 2001.
  2. See the text of the amended Act at FindLaw.com (accessed 20 December 2005)
  3. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989): "Because the Fourth Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against this sort of physically intrusive governmental conduct, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of 'substantive due process,' must be the guide for analyzing these claims."