Pierce v. Society of Sisters

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a 1922 Oregon law that compelled children aged eight to sixteen to attend not just a school, but the public schools. The Oregon compulsory public education law was sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan, Federated Patriotic Societies, the Masons, and smaller groups that appealed to white supremacist, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and nativist beliefs. Drawing on popular anxieties, the reformers argued that private schools allowed un-American elements to persist, and that compelling attendance to public schools was the only way to assimilate these diverse masses to white American Protestant culture. This method was not unique to Oregon, but had emerged from the ideals of the COMMON SCHOOL movement of the mid-nineteenth century. The reform movement was able to win in Oregon partly because it gained support from the educational establishment of the state, including the Oregon Teacher's Monthly and a large proportion of public school teachers. In addition, Governor Walter Pierce had won his office through the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and he actively supported the law.

The bill helped align civil libertarians, Lutherans, Catholics, Adventists, Jews, and African Americans first against passage, and then against the constitutionality of the law. It seems likely that the KKK and their allies pushed the reform in Oregon because they held an overwhelming native white majority in the state, but there were also initiatives in other states awaiting the outcome of the court battle. The operators of two private schools, the Society of the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary and the Hill Military Academy, filed complaints, gained an injunction against the law from a lower court, and won in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. The decision rested on two basic principles of American law. First, the state cannot seize private property, or grant monopolies that will destroy livelihoods, unless it can show that a compelling public interest requires the action. Therefore, the state does not possess the power to put all the private schools out of business. Second, juvenile law must balance the will of the majority and parental authority.

Pierce is significant because it helped limit the power of the state to socialize children at a moment when this power was advancing. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice James C. McReynolds penned what has become an often-quoted phrase, "The child is not the mere creature of the state." It should be noted that Pierce was not decided on the basis of the rights of the child, but the rights of property owners and parents. It supported previous rulings such as Meyer v. Nebraska that had granted the state considerable power to exercise its interest to "foster a homogeneous people with American ideals." This assimilationist justification for public schooling still has standing in educational policy, but it has been challenged periodically since the 1940s.

See also: Children's Rights; Education, United States; Law, Children and the; Parochial Schools.


Arons, Stephen. 1976. "The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered." Harvard Educational Review 46: 76–104.

Tyack, David, Thomas James, and Aaron Benavot. 1987. Law and the Shaping of Public Education, 1785–1954. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.