Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)


Public concern grew over educating the American in the 1920s. The state of Oregon passed the Compulsory Education Act of 1922. This Act amended a previous educational statute in order to force Oregon parents to send their children to the public school in their area, at least while they were between the ages of eight and sixteen. Two major private schools, Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and the Hill Military Academy Academy, sued the Governor of Oregon, Walter M. Pierce, who became the case’s respondent. The Society of Sisters conducted various youth programming, including private schooling and caring for orphans. Both schools claimed that their student enrollments declined, and they, therefore, were losing money as a result of the Compulsory Education Act. 

The organizations sued under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. The Due Process Clause states that no state shall deprive “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Lawyers for the private schools claimed they were being deprived of property by hurting their enrollment. The Supreme Court was also asked to determine if the Act harmed parents’ rights in the education of their children. 


In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court struck down the Compulsory Education Act of 1922 under the grounds that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The opinion for the Court was written by Justice James C. McReynolds, who wrote that the state was engaging in “unreasonable and unlawful interference with their patrons and the consequent destruction of their business and property.”  

The Court cited Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), which struck down a state law that banned instruction in languages other than English, noting the parent’s rights in their children’s education. McReynolds wrote that the State cannot “standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only...” and “the child is not the mere creature of the State.” Therefore, the Court upheld a parent’s rights to this educational decision. However, the Court did note that the states are still given great discretion with both the public and the private education system in their state. The Justice wrote that the State can still “regulate… inspect… supervise… and examine” schools along with requiring children to attend some type of school with qualified and moral teachers. 


The Court set precedent in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, noting the educational freedom of parents and the viability of private and parochial schools. The case has been cited in various ways, including claims that it proves there is a right to privacy in the Constitution. The reasoning the case used was also unique. Instead of relying on First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, and press, the Court relied on what they thought would be a more accepted mindset, the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Since then, the Court has taken up more First Amendment cases and has become considerably more comfortable ruling on that alone. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the United States Department of Education, as of 2017, 5.7 million students attend private school. There are 2.1 million students attending Catholic school, with the highest percentage of students being white, followed by Hispanics. Besides Catholic schools, 2.2 million private school students attend other religious schools in which Black students make the second-largest demographic after white students. Still, sixty-seven percent of private school students were white as of 2017, with eighty-three percent of school students inhabiting urban and suburban areas. Some have argued that this puts students of color and students living in rural areas without access to quality public schools at a disadvantage.

Think Further

  1. Do you believe that Pierce v. Society of Sisters should have been decided under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? If not, what should it have been decided under? 
  2. How should state governments regulate education? 
  3. Why do you think the majority of private school students are White and from urban or suburban areas?


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Learn More

  1. Mawdsley, Ralph D. “Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.” Encyclopedia Britannica, (25 May 2020) https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pierce-v-Society-of-Sisters-of-the-Holy-Names-of-Jesus-and-Mary. 
  2. “Pierce v. Society of Sisters.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1900-1940/268us510. 
  3. “Private School Enrollment.” National Center for Education Statistics, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgc.asp.
  4. Vile, John R. “Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925).” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/445/pierce-v-society-of-sisters.