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Pierce v. Society of Sisters

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Significance: Reinforcing a 1923 decision, the Supreme Court again applied the doctrine of substantive due process to strike down a law for infringing on a noneconomic liberty.


In 1922 the voters of Oregon approved an initiative that required most children between eight and sixteen to attend public schools. A private parochial school contended that the regulation violated both the right of the school to engage in a useful business and the right of parents to direct the education of their children. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held that the law was inconsistent with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice James C. McReynolds explained that constitutional liberties “may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the state.” Although the case related to religious freedom, the Court did not choose to consider whether or not the First Amendment might be applicable to the states. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who disliked substantive due process, did not explain why he joined Pierce after dissenting in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923). The Pierce decision, combined with Meyer, meant that the Court firmly recognized that the “liberty clause” protected both economic and noneconomic liberties. When the Court ceased to protect economic liberties after 1937, it did not overturn the Meyer/Pierce precedents, and they were important to the Court's recognition of a right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).