Cross Purposes

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


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.

Praise / Awards

  • "A definitive study of an extremely important, though curiously neglected, Supreme Court decision, Pierce v. Society of Sisters."
    —Robert O'Neil, University of Virginia School of Law

  • "A well-written, well-researched blend of law, politics, and history."
    —Joan DelFattore, University of Delaware

  • "The view that the education of the young plays a crucial role in the development and preservation of democracy is as old as America. Just as longstanding, however, is the fear that Roman Catholicism and, later, Catholic schools threaten the nation's unity and commitments. Prof. Abrams's close, vivid history of the Supreme Court's Pierce case tells a story of how that fear was exploited in politics and incorporated into law. Hers is 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

  • " will inform law students who are willing to go beyond doctrinal one-liners in their understanding of constitutional law.  It will remind Oregonians of an uncomfortable period of intolerance and bigotry from which they can learn or which they may perhaps repeat.  It will serve as a cautionary tale about the use and misuse of the initiative process. And it will be a reference source in the ongoing debate about what Pierce really means."
    —Susan M. Leeson, Senior Judge, State of Oregon, Oregon Benchmarks

  • "Even though several earlier studies cover much of the same ground as this book, this important case always is worthy of fresh attention, and Paula Abrams in Cross Purposes enhances our understanding of it. She provides a thorough examination of the political forces in Oregon that produced the nation's only compulsory public education law, and she offers an exeptionally detailed analysis of the shrewd litigation strategies that enabled Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other religious groups to successfully challenge the statute. It is a fascinating story, and Abrams's able telling of it should interest general readers as well as historians, lawyers, and constitutional scholars."
    —William G. Ross, Cumberland School of Law, Samford University

  • "Abrams has crafted an engaging and revealing narrative connecting politicians, Klansmen, Masons, the Vatican, educators, parents, and citizens into an account that borders on intrigue but also elucidates and interprets the birth and defeat of a movement that resulted in landmark legislation."
    Journal of Education and Christian Belief

Look Inside

Copyright © 2009, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

News, Reviews, Interviews

Listen: Podcast | Paula Abrams on Landmark Pierce v. Society of Sisters Case, Lewis and Clark University Media | 2/11/2010

Read: Law and Politics Book Review, by Staci L. Beavers, Political Science Department, California State University San Marcos | 6/15/2010

Read: Article Lewis and Clark News | 2/11/2010

Product Details

  • 296 pages.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02139-0

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  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters, Parental rights, Compulsory public education or schooling, Constitutional law/ Supreme Court, Private schools, Nativism, Oregon school case, Education or education law, Substantive due process, Parochial schools