Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925)

Pierce v. Society of Sisters addressed the constitutionality of a state statute requiring children’s attendance in public schools. The Oregon law required every parent or guardian of a child between eight and sixteen years to send that child to a public school. Under this law, a parent or guardian would be guilty of a misdemeanor for each day a student failed to attend public school. The plaintiffs, a Catholic school serving orphans and a military academy, argued that the state was depriving them of property and their ability to remain in business, and thus sought a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the statute. The two schools taught the same subjects traditionally pursued in the public schools with some additional instruction. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the Oregon law was unconstitutional because it exceeded the type of reasonable regulation of education under the state’s police powers. Relying on the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court held that the statute deprived private schools of their property interests to remain in business and the parents of their liberty interest in deciding how best to raise their children:

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, ... and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare (268 U.S. at 534).

The Court rejected the state’s argument that the statute was required to effectuate compulsory education, noting that private and public schools can, and have, existed in harmony. Following Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), the Court found that the Oregon statute unreasonably interfered with the liberty of parents, individually and as a group, to guide their children intellectually and religiously (Pierce, 268 U.S. at 534). Thus, as in Meyer, the Court applied a mere rationality test rather than any type of strict scrutiny to invalidate the statute. The state’s power to legislate in the area of education did not give it the right to prohibit and suppress private schools that are qualified to provide students with an education. The state does not have the power to ‘‘standardize its children,’’ by forcing public instruction on them (268 U.S. at 535). Nevertheless, the Court recognized that states, in their interest in developing an educated citizenry, could regulate private schools, requiring them to meet minimum standards of instruction also required of public schools.

The Pierce case has been cited in most cases concerning compulsory school attendance, where nonpublic school attendance or home schooling is involved, and in cases involving government interference with the family realm. Together with Meyer v. Nebraska, states cannot interfere with private school practices unless such practices are harmful to the public welfare. The case is also significant for its early use of the substantive due-process doctrine in the area of noneconomic rights (parental rights).

EMILY R. FROIMSON

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

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