Created by: The OE
Published: May 13, 2020

Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, by Robert Bunting

The Compulsory Public School Attendance Bill was an initiative to amend the Compulsory Education Act that compelled children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend public schools. Inaugurated by the Scottish-rite Masons of Oregon, the initiative measure appeared on the November 7, 1922, Oregon ballot.

Proponents of the measure—including the Ku Klux Klan and the Federation of Patriotic Societies—believed that the measure was necessary to preserve and perpetuate a homogeneous American culture. Opponents argued that the measure not only violated constitutionally guaranteed property rights but also posed a threat to religious freedom and the ability of parents to educate their children in accordance with their faith and conscience. Those most opposed to the measure were Roman Catholics, the initiative’s main target, and Seventh-Day Adventists, Episcopalians, and Lutherans—religions that operated private schools.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Portland, Alexander Christie, immediately founded the Catholic Civic Rights Association of Oregon to combat the initiative and anti-Catholicism generally through pamphlets, newspaper articles, and lectures. In addition, the Oregon episcopacy asked pastors of the 130 Catholic parishes in Oregon to educate voters about the measure and to encourage Catholics to vote.

In the end, the initiative passed by an almost 53 percent margin, with 115,506 votes in favor and 103,685 opposed. Although the measure was not to become operative until September 1, 1926, opponents immediately took their case to the federal court.

Learn more about the Compulsory Public School Attendance Bill: Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, by Robert Bunting