Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944)

2012-08-19 02:36:53

Prince, her two children, and a young girl in her legal custody were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each week, Prince distributed religious magazines on the streets. She permitted her children to participate in the preaching with her on the sidewalks. In particular, the child at issue held up the magazines in her hand for passers-by to see. On the side of her bag was printed, ‘‘Watchtower and Consolation 5 cents per copy.’’

Prince was charged with violating a state child labor law, which prohibited children from selling or offering for sale any magazines, newspapers, or other merchandise in any street or public place. The statute punished any parent or guardian who compelled or permitted the child to work in violation of the statute.

The question presented was whether the state statute, as applied, contravened the Fourteenth Amendment by denying or abridging the appellant’s freedom of religion or denying her the equal protection of the laws. Prince further claimed the state violated her parental right as secured by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed her liberty, to bring up her child teaching the child the tenets and practices of her faith, and her child’s liberty, to observe those tenets and practices.

In rejecting Prince’s claims and affirming the lower court, the Supreme Court held that, as applied, the statute neither violated freedom of religion nor denied equal protection of the laws (321 U.S. at 167). The Court recognized the need to balance the freedom of religion and this case, the parental right to control the upbringing of children, with the authority of the state to protect the children’s welfare. While the Supreme Court has recognized the rights of children to exercise their religion and of parents to give religious instructions, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), and the rights of parents to provide their children religious and private secular schooling, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925) (recognizing the private realm of family life), the state also has a recognized interest in protecting the welfare of children (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 1925 [requiring school attendance]; Sturges & Burn Mfg. Co. v. Beauchamp, 231 U.S. 320, 1913 [prohibiting child labor]). In this case, the Court recognized the state’s interest in protecting children from the ‘‘crippling effects of child employment,’’ ‘‘especially in public places, and the possible harms arising from other activities subject to all the diverse influences of the street’’ (Prince, 321 U.S. at 168). The Court rejected the equal protection argument because all children, not only Jehovah’s Witnesses, are excluded from engaging in prohibited conduct.

The significance of Prince was its recognition that while parents have a liberty interest in care and nurturing of their children, the state may nevertheless regulate some areas of family life in the interest of the child’s welfare.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Commonwealth v. Prince, 313 Mass. 223, 46 N.E.2d 755 (1943)
  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925)
  • Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944)
  • Sturges & Burn Mfg. Co. v. Beauchamp, 231 U.S. 320 (1913)
  • West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)