The Supreme Court decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), although never directly mentioning the First Amendment, has become an important precedent both for the rights of parents to educate their children and for the rights of parochial schools to operate alongside public schools. Pierce demonstrates how the Court often relied on property rights before it applied First Amendment rights to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Oregon required most children to attend public school through age sixteen

Oregon had adopted an initiative providing the Compulsory Education Act, which required most children to attend public schools through the age of sixteen years. The act had been challenged by the Society of Sisters and by the Hill Military Academy, both of which had previously provided such education on their own and which now faced declining enrollments as a result of the law.

Supreme Court said requirement was unconstitutional

Justice James C. McReynolds wrote the Court’s unanimous decision upholding a lower court ruling that had decided that the law deprived the school owners of their property without due process of law and interfered with the liberty of parents to choose schools for their children.

Citing Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), which dealt with instruction in foreign languages, for the principle that parents could “direct the upbringing and education of children under their control,” McReynolds said the state had no power 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.”

Acknowledging that the state had a general right to adopt legislation that affects patrons of businesses, McReynolds observed that “the injunctions here sought are not against the exercise of any proper power. Plaintiffs asked protection against arbitrary, unreasonable and unlawful interference with their patrons and the consequent destruction of their business and property.” The case is sometimes cited as one that set the stage for the right of privacy.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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