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Cross Purposes

Pierce v. Society of Sisters and the Struggle over Compulsory Public Education

Paula Abrams

Publication Year: 2009

A definitive study of an extremely important, though curiously neglected, Supreme Court decision, Pierce v. Society of Sisters. ---Robert O'Neil, Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Virginia School of Law "A careful and captivating examination of a dramatic and instructive clash between nationalism and religious pluralism, and of the ancient but ongoing struggle for control over the education of children and the formation of citizens." ---Richard W. Garnett, Professor of Law and Associate Dean, Notre Dame Law School "A well-written, well-researched blend of law, politics, and history." ---Joan DelFattore, Professor of English and Legal Studies, University of Delaware In 1922, the people of Oregon passed legislation requiring all children to attend public schools. For the nativists and progressives who had campaigned for the Oregon School Bill, it marked the first victory in a national campaign to homogenize education---and ultimately the populace. Private schools, both secular and religious, vowed to challenge the law. The Catholic Church, the largest provider of private education in the country and the primary target of the Ku Klux Klan campaign, stepped forward to lead the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the court declared the Oregon School Bill unconstitutional and ruled that parents have the right to determine how their children should be educated. Since then, Pierce has provided a precedent in many cases pitting parents against the state. Paula Abrams is Professor of Constitutional Law at Lewis & Clark Law School.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

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This book began when my daughters entered St.Mary’s Academy as high school freshmen. My curiosity was piqued when I realized that the 150-year-old school they attended had been the plaintiff in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a case I taught every year in my constitutional law course. ...

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INTRODUCTION. One Flag, One School

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pp. 1-4

The message tacked to the St. Mary’s Academy door just before midnight on November 7, 1922, confirmed the worst fears of the nuns and school-children asleep within. “The School Bill passed. Fiat!” Hours earlier, the people of Oregon became the first in the nation to approve a ballot initiative compelling public education for all children between the ages of 8 and 16. ...

PART I. Initiative

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CHAPTER 1. One Hundred Percent Americanism

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pp. 7-14

The Oregon School Bill fight was never simply a local issue.The inspiration for the Oregon School Bill came from a resolution adopted at Colorado Springs, Colorado, by the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite Masons, Southern Jurisdiction, in May 1920. The resolution represented the will of Masons in 33 southern and western states. ...

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CHAPTER 2. We the People

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pp. 15-22

A small group of Oregon Masons, spurred by the statewide focus on compulsory public education during the primary, mobilized to place an initiative on the Oregon ballot in the November general election. Judge John B. Cleland, a Mason and Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Oregon, drafted the initiative.The measure required public schooling for all children ...

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CHAPTER 3. The Entering Wedge

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pp. 23-35

Within days of the filing of the School Bill initiative with the secretary of state, Alexander Christie, archbishop of Oregon City, signaled his alarm about the proposal to Father John J. Burke, general secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), clear across the country: “I am writing to you upon a matter of vital and urgent importance, and one to which I beg ...

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CHAPTER 4. Good Enough for All

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pp. 36-42

In a heavily Republican state, Pierce’s endorsement of compulsory public schooling expanded the potential pool of voter support for the School Bill. Pierce’s influence among populists was likely to yield votes for the measure. What that yield might be was difficult to discern among a citizenry with a reputation for political independence. By August, the campaign to capture ...

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CHAPTER 5. Who Owns Your Child?

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pp. 43-49

Archbishop Christie, Wooten, and the leadership of the Lutheran Schools Committee argued that Oregonians would oppose the School Bill if they could be persuaded to see compelled public education as a draconian government intrusion that threatened personal liberty. Their efforts benefited significantly from the work of the Non-Sectarian and Protestant Schools ...

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CHAPTER 6. Romanism

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pp. 50-61

The official campaign on behalf of the School Bill remained,for the most part, focused on patriotism and assimilation. Anti-Catholic bigotry was kept to subtext. But outside the Voters’ Pamphlet and the ads displayed prominently in major newspapers, some School Bill supporters waged a far more nefarious campaign, conceived in religious bigotry. The movement for ...

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CHAPTER 7. Seeing Red

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pp. 62-76

Supporters and opponents of the School Bill put forth very different visions of democracy. Proponents championed the prerogatives of the majority. They envisioned a society where immigrants and minorities assimilated to majority values and where the interests of the community dominated those of the individual. Opponents claimed individual liberties were the corner-...

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CHAPTER 8. The Majority Will

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pp. 77-86

In the dwindling days of the Oregon School Bill fight, labor unrest in Portland brought home the threat of radicalism exploited in campaign rhetoric. On October 13 ,a walkout by 1,000 members of the International Longshoremen’s union and the Marine Transport Industrial union, a branch of the IWW, shut down the Portland waterfront. Portland mayor George ...

PART II. Judgment

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CHAPTER 9. A Great Cross

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pp. 89-98

Within two days of the election, School Bill opponents announced plans to challenge the measure.They knew the Klan-controlled legislature was unlikely to repeal the law.The measure would not go into effect until September 1926, but the repercussions were likely to begin almost immediately. Among those who stood to lose their positions were the staffs of 39 private ...

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CHAPTER 10. Turf

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pp. 99-111

With NCWC approval granted, Bishop Muldoon of the NCWC’s administrative committee cautioned about the potential for a turf battle between local and national leadership.The $10,000 gift from the Knights of Columbus resulted from the personal appeals of Archbishop Christie and Judge Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh expected to continue working on the case....

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CHAPTER 11. A Perfect Storm

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pp. 112-124

Although Guthrie did not finalize his agreement with the NCWC until September, his interest in the School Bill predated any formal contract. Sixty-four-year-old William Dameron Guthrie brought expertise, prestige, and connections to the School Bill case. Both legal scholar and successful attorney, he also brought a reputation as one of the leading architects of the an-...

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CHAPTER 12. Delicate and Difficult Questions

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pp. 125-136

To Archbishop Christie, the choice of plaintiff could not be more obvious. The Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary maintained the oldest and most extensive system of Catholic schools in the state.The Sisters owned six schools throughout Oregon, including St.Mary’s Academy in Portland, and schooled over 865 students. The ...

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CHAPTER 13. Take the Scholars

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pp. 137-143

Just before Christmas, Kavanaugh telegraphed Guthrie that the federal district court had scheduled the hearing on the injunction for January 15,1924. Guthrie, about to depart for Florida, replied by return mail with a lengthy letter outlining his strategy for the hearing. He expressed confidence that Kavanaugh would “comprehensibly and ably” represent the Society of the ...

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CHAPTER 14. An Extravagance in Simile

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pp. 144-155

A three-judge panel, required by federal law when an injunction was sought against a state law on the grounds of unconstitutionality, convened the morning of January 15, with both the Sisters and Hill Military Academy present through counsel.1 The panel consisted of Ninth Circuit judge William B. Gilbert and district judges Charles E. Wolverton and ...

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CHAPTER 15. Final Duty and Power

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pp. 156-168

In an impassioned letter to Gaetano Cardinal DeLai, secretary of the influential Consistorial Congregation, Archbishop Hanna apprised the Vatican of the significance of the School Bill litigation before the Supreme Court: “No matter has presented such a critical issue in the well-being of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States as the legislation successfully ...

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CHAPTER 16. The Little RedSchoolhouse

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pp. 169-179

While the schools stayed with the strategy that had proved successful at the district court, the state’s appellate case departed dramatically from its position at trial on two major issues—that the schools lacked standing to assert parental rights and that the case was premature. After vigorously insisting at the trial court that the case should be dismissed because ...

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CHAPTER 17. Last Refuge

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pp. 180-194

The Court finally called the case for Monday, March 16. Prior to the hearing, Guthrie did get an opportunity to speak with the chief justice about additional time for argument, and the conversation yielded an unexpected boost for his client. As the attorneys for the Sisters and Hill Military Academy—Guthrie, Kavanaugh, Veatch, and Lusk—gathered in a small conference ...

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CHAPTER 18. A Mere Creature of the State

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pp. 195-206

Pierce arrived at the Court during a time of great national debate on the very principles of democracy argued in the School Bill case.The country’s antipathy toward immigrants and radicals lingered after the war, justified, argued many, by national security. With the war and the Red Scare still permeating the mood of the United States, the country was ...

PART III. Legacy

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pp. 209-218

The nation plunged deeply into a dialogue on education and religion during that summer of 1925. By the time the Supreme Court issued the Pierce decision on June 1, the country’s attention was already turning to the next “trial of the century,” the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” As Clarence Darrow prepared to defend John Scopes, a high school teacher charged in May with violating a ...

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AFTERWORD. Pierce Redux

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pp. 219-234

In the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court recognized a constitutional right of privacy and cited Pierce as support for this right. Griswold has nothing to do with parental rights—it invalidated a state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives—but it, too, focuses on the relationship between individual and state and on the limits democracy imposes on state power. ...


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pp. 235-262


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pp. 263-280

E-ISBN-13: 9780472021390
E-ISBN-10: 0472021397
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472117000
Print-ISBN-10: 0472117009

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Educational law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Pierce, Walter Marcus, 1861-1954 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Religious minorities -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Due process of law -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholics -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholic schools -- Oregon -- Portland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Private schools -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Oregon -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Church schools -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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