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Pierce v. Society of Sisters


Following up on its 1923 decision in Meyer v. Nebraska, the Court said parents have the right to choose how their children are educated, though the states can compel children to attend some kind of school and set minimum standards for private schools. As with Meyer, the Pierce decision was later used to help craft an unwritten constitutional right to privacy.

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. But in their patriotic zeal, the states sometimes trampled on the constitutional rights of their citizens. Oregon was one of the states that tried to dictate how children should be educated, but the Supreme Court thwarted the effort.

In 1922, Oregon voters approved an initiative that required all students between eight and sixteen years old--with limited exceptions--to attend public schools. Parents or legal guardians who disobeyed the law faced arrest on misdemeanor charges. The drive for the Compulsory Education Act was led by the Ku Klux Klan and the Scottish Rite Masons, and it reflected anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments. The law's supporters did not want students of different religious or ethnic backgrounds studying together in private schools. The law was supposed to take effect on 1 September 1926, but private schools were already feeling its effects, as parents removed their children or stopped enrolling new students. Two organizations, the Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and the Hill Military Academy, filed for injunctions against the Compulsory Education Act.

The Society of Sisters was a Roman Catholic order that took care of orphans and operated a number of parochial schools. Many of its students were between ages eight and sixteen. Hill was a private military academy that also taught students between those ages. Both schools argued that the education law denied them property-their income from tuition--without due process. Both schools also claimed the compulsory school law infringed on the liberty of parents to choose the school they desired for their children. The state of Oregon, however, planned to enforce the law, leading to the request for an injunction. A number of religious groups supported the request, which was granted by a federal district court. The state then appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Pierce v. Society of Sisters - Significance, A Recent Precedent Sets The Way, Further Readings