Pierce v. Society of Sisters #IAHEtbt

Throwback Thursday • June 1, 1925 #IAHEtbt

Pierce v. Society of Sisters is foundational for our homeschool rights. IAHE’s friend, John Tuma, shares the interesting story of this legal case.

How Catholic nuns saved homeschooling from the Ku Klux Klan

Early in my role of advocating for the rights of homeschoolers, I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925) was the foundation upon which homeschooling rights were built. The often quoted statement in the opinion of Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds from Pierce v. Society of Sisters leaves little doubt about the court’s belief in the rights of parents:

“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 instructions 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.”

homeschool-historyIt is easy to see from this quote how Pierce v. Society of Sisters became the central foundation in later state and U.S. Supreme Court cases upholding the right of parents to educate their children at home. Therefore, it is worth examining the history behind how this matter became a Supreme Court case, and it is a very interesting history.

This story really begins with the vision of a young French-Canadian Catholic nun in 1843 living in the sleepy hamlet of Longueuil, Québec. The Blessed Mother Marie Rose Durocher founded the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary dedicated to the education and care of children of the forgotten poor. Mother Marie Rose died only six years later in 1849, but the vision and mission of her order continued to grow. In 1859 Archbishop Francis Norbert Blanchet of Oregon needed assistance in caring for many of the forgotten children on the frontier in the Pacific Northwest. Twelve nuns of the order of Mother Marie Rose heeded the call of the Archbishop, leaving Montréal to establish a mission in Portland. On November 16, 1859, the Sisters established St. Mary’s Academy with six students. Three of them were Catholic, two were Jewish, and one Anglican. Only a few days later St. Mary’s took in its first orphan, a seven-year-old little girl.

From this humble beginning, the Sisters had developed deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. By the 1920s, the Sisters had established several other schools and orphanages in Oregon in addition to St. Mary’s, providing countless orphans and children with solid moral and secular education, but above all, hope. Unfortunately, by the 1920s there was an ill wind blowing through America that would soon arrive in full force to threaten the Sisters’ mission in Oregon.

Following World War I in America, there developed a deep distrust and bigotry toward immigrants, particularly those from Central European nations, coupled with a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. At the same time was the fear of communism which was viewed as a leftist revolution against everything that was American. Interestingly, feeding off this fear, the Ku Klux Klan started to reshape itself from a Southern white supremacy secret society by moving north to become one of the leading voices against communism, Catholicism and for quick American assimilation of immigrants. Unfortunately, in the early 1920s, this movement found one of its most receptive ears within the Protestant evangelical community. It was not until the early 1930s when wracked by scandal and an exposure of criminal activities that the KKK would quickly vanish from the northern political landscape.

cropped-iahe-2.jpgOn the heels of World War I, the KKK was wielding great power in places like Oregon and in conjunction with other forces were able to place on that state’s 1922 ballot an initiative requiring all students to attend public schools only. The movement was to ensure that all children were appropriately Americanized to protect our country from communism and the negative influences of Catholicism. The campaign was an overt attempt to take students away from education by the Catholic Church and Jewish synagogues. Riding on the wave of this nationalistic movement, Walter Pierce was elected governor of Oregon. Pierce was the 1922 Democratic candidate for governor and openly embraced the KKK endorsement along with strongly supporting the 1922 compulsory attendance ballot initiative. On November 7, 1922, the voters of Oregon passed the compulsory attendance initiative which was set to take affect in September of 1926; Pierce made it very clear his administration would strictly enforce the provision.

The Sisters had never stood idly by in the face of a challenge in the past and they were not about to see their mission closed down by bigotry. It was the Sisters who struck first by suing Governor Pierce and the State of Oregon in Federal District Court in 1923, successfully winning an injunction stopping the implementation of the compulsory attendance law. Governor Pierce, buoyed by popular sentiment, led the action to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, thus the title Pierce v. Society of Sisters.

Arguments at the Supreme Court turn on the interpretation of the 14th amendment. Prior to the 1920s, the Supreme Court had a very narrow interpretation of the 14th amendment which was adopted soon after the Civil War in part as a response to slavery and the terrible Dred Scott decision. It was through the decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters finally decided in 1925 and the 1923 case overturning a Nebraska law requiring only English to be taught in schools known as Meyer v. Nebraska that the courts clearly started to develop individual civil rights protected under the Constitution through the 14th amendment. The courts stated in Meyer that an individual had the right “to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges . . . essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men”. It was this case that the court cited as the main precedent for overturning the Oregon law and guaranteeing the right of parents to direct the education of their children without state interference.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court Justice tapped to issue the actual opinion in both the Pierce and Meyer decisions, James Clark McReynolds, was considered one of the most cantankerous, prejudicial, and anti-Semitic individuals to ever be seated on the Supreme Court. McReynolds was so prejudiced that when the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice was appointed, he made a habit of leaving the room when he spoke during deliberations. When the second Jewish justice was appointed, McReynolds noticeably read the newspaper during the swearing in ceremony. It is interesting that although he was personally a bigot, he would write the opinion that would guarantee that Catholics and Jews could direct the education of children whether in church and synagogue.

The story of Pierce v. Society of Sisters resembles several stories from the Bible, where God used flawed individuals and challenging circumstances to preserve his movement through history. God used the fear and bigotry of Oregon voters, the courage and persistence of a group of humble Catholic nuns, and the stubbornness of a governor to result in the law of the land guaranteeing parents the right to direct the religious upbringing of their children. A righteous law brought into being by the statements of one of the most bigoted justices in American history — only a fool would not see God’s hand in that.


John Tuma is a former member of the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators (MACHE) board. John’s career began as an attorney for a firm in the Northfield Minnesota area.  In 1991, he opened his own solo practice and Wendy, his wife, stepped in to assist him.  In 1994, John entered the political arena when he was elected State Representative for their district and served in office for four consecutive terms.  As a Representative, John had the honor of chairing the Crime Prevention Committee and was one of the chief authors of the state’s terrorist bill which was developed as a result of the September 11th terrorist attack. In 2002, John made the choice to retire from his legislative position in order to spend more time with his family.  It was then that John and Wendy started Tuma Consulting Corporation, a legislative consultant business. In 2015 the Governor of Minnesota appointed John to the Public Utilities Commission. John and Wendy have two grown children that they had homeschooled through high school.