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David Kirkpatrick


Pierce vs Society of Sisters

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation
 

On June 1, 1925, 84 years ago today, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court handed down this decision which clearly established the right of parents to determine how their children would be educated. The right was challenged on November 7, 1922 when Oregon voters, urged by the Klu Klux Klan, among others, adopted an initiative requiring all school age youngsters in Oregon to attend public schools only.

Because of its importance the decision, cited above, warrants a full reading, but, more than 3,300 words it is too long to be fully included here. The following is from the opinion written by Associate Justice James Clark McReynolds, with emphasis added to two sections. Since the decision still stands today emphasis has been added to two key statements:

The challenged act, effective September 1, 1926, requires every parent, guardian, or other person having control or charge or custody of a child between eight and sixteen years to send him "to a public school for the period of time a public school shall be held during the current year" in the district where the child resides; and the failure to do so is declared a misdemeanor...without doubt enforcement of the statute would seriously impair, perhaps destroy, the profitable features of appellees' business, and greatly diminish the value of their property.

Appellee the Society of Sisters is an Oregon corporation, organized in 1880, with power to care for orphans, educate and instruct the youth, establish and maintain academies or schools...The Compulsory Education Act of 1922 has already caused the withdrawal from its schools of children who would otherwise continue, and their income has steadily declined.
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Appellee Hill Military Academy is a private corporation organized in 1908 under the laws of Oregon, engaged in owning, operating, and conducting for profit an elementary, college preparatory, and military training schools for boys between the ages of five and twenty-one years...appellee's business is being destroyed and its property depreciated; parents and guardians are refusing to make contracts for the future instruction of their sons, and some are being withdrawn.

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.

(W)e 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... 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...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.

(T)he 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.

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 are affirmed.
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