Pierce v. Society of Sisters

268 U.S. 510

Case Year: 1925

Case Ruling: 9-0, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: McReynolds

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Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brandeis, Butler, Holmes, McKenna, Sanford, Sutherland, Taft, VanDevanter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In November 1922, Oregon voters passed the Compulsory Education Act, a popular initiative that required parents and guardians of children between the ages of eight and sixteen to send them to a public school in the district where the child resided. Failure to comply was a criminal misdemeanor. Exemptions were possible for students who had special needs, lived a long distance from a public school, or had completed the eighth grade.

The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, founded in 1870, was an order of Roman Catholic nuns that operated orphanages and schools in Oregon. The sisters devoted their property and energies to the religious and secular education of children. The Compulsory Education Act effectively would have put the Society's private schools out of business. The sisters challenged the constitutionality of the Act, claiming that it infringed on the right of parents to choose schools for their children and denied the Society's teachers the right to engage in a useful profession. A three-judge district court ruled in favor of the Society and enjoined the enforcement of the Act. The state of Oregon appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the appeal, along with a similar one filed by a private military academy.



... 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.

The inevitable practical result of enforcing the act under consideration would be destruction of appellees' primary schools, and perhaps all other private primary schools for normal children within the state of Oregon. Appellees are engaged in a kind of undertaking not inherently harmful, but long regarded as useful and meritorious. Certainly there is nothing in the present records to indicate that they have failed to discharge their obligations to patrons, students, or the state. And there are no peculiar circumstances or present emergencies which demand extraordinary measures relative to primary education.

Under the doctrine of Meyer v. Nebraska [1923] we think it entirely plain that the Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control. As often heretofore pointed out, rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the state. The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

Appellees are corporations, and therefore, it is said, they cannot claim for themselves the liberty which the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees. Accepted in the proper sense, this is true.... But 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....

The courts of the state have not construed the act, and we must determine its meaning for ourselves. Evidently it was expected to have general application and cannot be construed as though merely intended to amend the charters of certain private corporations ... No argument in favor of such view has been advanced. Generally, it is entirely true, as urged by counsel, that no person in any business has such an interest in possible customers as to enable him to restrain exercise of proper power of the state upon the ground that he will be deprived of patronage. But the injunctions here sought are not against the exercise of any proper power. Appellees asked protection against arbitrary, unreasonable, and unlawful interference with their patrons and the consequent destruction of their business and property. Their interest is clear and immediate....

The suits were not premature. The injury to appellees was present and very real, not a mere possibility in the remote future. If no relief had been possible prior to the effective date of the act, the injury would have become irreparable. Prevention of impending injury by unlawful action is a well-recognized function of courts of equity.

The decrees below are affirmed.