Pierce v Society of Sisters & the Rise of Substantive Due ProcessHistorical
In Pierce v Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Compulsory Education Act of 1922, which required parents to send their children to public school. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the statute violated the Due Process Clause by interfering with the liberty of parents to direct their children’s upbringing.
Facts of Pierce v Society of Sisters
The Oregon Compulsory Education Act required every parent, guardian or other person having control of a child between the ages of eight and sixteen years to send him to the public school in the district where he resides. The Society of Sisters, an organization formed to care for orphans and educate youth through private schools, challenged the law. It argued that the Oregon law was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the right of parents to choose schools where their children will receive appropriate mental and religious training, the right of the child to influence the parents’ choice of a school, and the right of schools and teachers to engage in a useful business or profession. An Oregon district court ordered an injunction to prevent enforcement of the law, and the state appealed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Court’s Decision in Pierce v Society of Sisters
The Court unanimously sided with the Society of Sisters. It held: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments of this Union rest excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.”
As James P. McReynolds wrote on behalf of the Court:
[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: as often heretofore pointed out, rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State. 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.
The Court acknowledged that since the schools were corporations, they could not technically “claim for themselves the liberty which the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.” However, it nonetheless concluded:
But 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.
The Court’s decision is credited with expanding the protection of civil liberties under the Due Process Clause. It has been cited in more than 100 Supreme Court cases, including landmark decisions on abortion and gay rights.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.