Mother Alphonsus Mary Daly received this telegram on June 1, 1925, congratulating her and the other Holy Names Sisters on a successful defense of Catholic schools. (Courtesy Archives of the Holy Names Sisters)
Mother Alphonsus Mary Daly received this telegram on June 1, 1925, congratulating her and the other Holy Names Sisters on a successful defense of Catholic schools. (Courtesy Archives of the Holy Names Sisters)
Most Oregonians take Catholic schools for granted. But only a century ago, a majority of the state’s voters chose to outlaw private schooling altogether. Implicitly yet irrefutably, the vote was a broadside against Catholics.

On Nov. 7, 1922, 53% of the electorate approved an initiative that would require parents to send their children to Oregon’s public schools. Parents or guardians who broke the law would be fined from $5 to $100 and could be imprisoned for as long as a month.

The idea began with a national council of Scottish Rite Masons, who in May 1920 had passed a resolution promoting forced attendance of all children in public schools. The stated hope was unity and homogeneity nationwide. The Masons — along with the Ku Klux Klan, which was newly active in Oregon — rued the arrival of immigrants and perceived a threat to predominantly white Protestant culture. The vitriol against Catholics was fiery. The argument went like this: Catholics are ambitious, revolutionary, unpatriotic, untrustworthy and unsavory, aligned with Rome, not America.

At the same time, fake former nuns and sham resigned monks traveled the nation with alarming tales. Some pundits argued ludicrously that more private school kids end up in prison than public school kids. Statistics disproved that claim.

The Masons viewed Oregon as a place with so few Catholics — only 8% of the population — that the compulsory education notion had a chance. The Masons were right when it came to the numbers, but underestimated the tenacity of Oregon’s faithful.

Led by Portland Archbishop Alexander Christie, many Catholics put up a fight leading up to the 1922 vote. Some church-goers wanted a militant defense of the faith, but Archbishop Christie instead established the Catholic Civic Rights Association of Oregon to fight the initiative with law and logic. The association pushed arguments that anyone could embrace, such as rights of property and parenthood. The archbishop also urged women religious statewide to use their newly-won right to vote to scotch the school bill.

Disturbed at apathy in the wider Catholic community, the archbishop asked pastors of the 130 Catholic parishes in the state to educate voters about the measure and urge Catholics to cast ballots. In an announcement from the pulpit at St. Ignatius Church in Southeast Portland, Jesuit Father Alfonse Fletcher said it would be “nothing less than a crime against both church and state if any of our people fail to register for this election.”

Sister Mary Flavia Dunn, superior of the Holy Names Sisters based at St. Mary’s Academy and Marylhurst, knew where to aim her advocacy. In October 1922, she wrote to local business leaders to remind them how good Catholic schools had been for their enterprises.

“We need not remind you of the hundreds of thousands of dollars brought to our state and Portland in particular by the large attendance each year at the colleges, academies and private schools, add to this the maintenance, the money spent by the pupils, and you have an additional large sum of money brought to our city and state,” Sister Flavia wrote. “Our business relations for many years have been most pleasant and beneficial and in the hour of our trial, thus saving the honor and business of Oregon, may we not appeal to you, yours, your people and friends to vote down this bill?”

Soon, businessmen of Portland — with names like Ladd and Ainsworth — offered a statement opposing the bill, calling it “destructive of true Americanism.”

Supporters of the initiative printed slogans like this: “All for the Public School and the Public School for All,” “One Flag — One School — One Language,” and “Free public schools: Open to All, Good Enough for All, and Attended by All.” The Masons and Klan told politicians to support the measure or count on being defeated. One who followed along was Walter Pierce, candidate for governor.

The Catholic Sentinel in 1922 sought to capture the progressive spirit of the times and started calling the measure “the school monopoly” or “the intolerance campaign.”

“One of the most persistent libels on private school instruction is that the ordinary branches are neglected in order to secure religious training,” said an unsigned Sentinel editorial of Oct. 19, 1922, a few weeks before the vote. “Those who are acquainted with our Catholic schools know how wrong this view is and how efficient the instruction is.”

Secular newspapers weighed in against the measure.

“It will stamp Oregon as the freak state of the union,” the Salem Capitol Journal editorialized in 1922. “[The state would be] the most intolerant commonwealth, the only one that denies the parent the inherent right to supervise the education of the child, that substitutes for the American system of individualism the German kaiser's system of collective education and the Soviet idea that the child is the property of the state.”

The Medford Mail Tribune said the bill would increase taxes as the cost of public schools would soar. The Advocate, the Black paper in Portland, said it would curtail freedom of thought and belief.

Bishops around the nation spoke up for Catholic schools. “The growth of the Church is measured by the growth of her schools,” said Bishop John Carroll of Boise.

The Seventh-day Adventists and Jewish groups joined in the campaign against the school bill, calling it an act of tyranny. In summer 1922, Lane County Catholics formed committees to go out and speak to voters to educate them.

The efforts made the vote closer, but the initiative passed with 115,506 in favor and 103,685 opposed. The measure received most support in the Portland area and most opposition in Eastern Oregon.

“The injection of the religious question which mainly turned upon a bigoted hatred of the Catholic Church completely obliterated all sanity of judgment and subordinated reason to passion and prejudice as was contrived and intended by the proponents of the bill,” the Sentinel wrote in the wake of the disappointing result.

But the resolute Archbishop Christie declared the battle just begun and was prescient about the ultimate outcome.

“Plans are being formulated to test immediately the constitutionality of the measure,” he wrote in the Sentinel. “No rest will be taken until the highest court in the land has rendered a decision. For this reason, perhaps, the passing of the bill is a blessing in disguise. We are now in a position to settle the question of the rights of religious schools once and for all time.”

The grizzled and battle-scarred archbishop, nearing the end of his own life, would not need to wait long for the challenge to emerge.

In August 1923 the Sisters of the Holy Names and Hill Military Academy, a Portland Episcopal school, filed a suit in federal district court in Portland. Lead attorney for the sisters, Judge John P. Kavanaugh, had picked the women religious, loved by many, as the most sympathetic and respected of clients. Now, it was the state against a community of kind and smart women. The wily Kavanaugh, born on a French Prairie farm in 1871 and educated by Benedictine nuns in Gervais and Benedictine monks in Mount Angel, argued that the new law not only nixed parental rights but was akin to seizure of the sisters’ property in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

On March 31, 1924, in Portland, a three judge panel of the Oregon District Court considered the case, accepted Kavanaugh’s positions and ruled the law unconstitutional, blocking it from taking effect.

“The law was discriminatory, confiscatory and unconstitutional,” the Morning Oregonian declared in fall 1924, having been rather mushy on the topic before the district court decision.

The Sentinel picked up on what seemed like opportunism from the state’s largest daily. “We are glad to find that the news with regard to the school law at last has reached the Oregonian,” the Sentinel editor wrote. “If the morning paper had spoken in this tone of voice two years ago, instead using the weasel words it then employed, the anti-private school legislation would never have disgraced the statute books of Oregon.”

Despite the turning tide of opinion, Gov. Walter Pierce — who would serve only a single term — appealed the district court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Oregon case was about to get worldwide attention. It would be called “Pierce vs. Society of Sisters.”

The Knights of Columbus helped fund the lawsuit along with the National Catholic Welfare Conference. On June 1, 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in favor of the Holy Names Sisters. The court affirmed the right of private schools to exist and the right of parents to govern their children’s education.

Justice James Clark McReynolds of Tennessee wrote the opinion including this now-famous paragraph: “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 instruction 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.”

The Columbian Press, printer of the Catholic Sentinel, celebrated the ruling with an ad in the paper’s issue of June 4, 1925: “This is America, not Russia. American children belong to their parents, not the state. The victory is sweet.”

In the same issue, the Sentinel editor made a more sober observation: “The curious thing is that persons calling themselves Americans should have so completely forgotten the foundations on which the American government was laid as to believe that the child belongs to the state or that the state under our law could act as if it had a right in the child superior to the parent's right.”


May 1920 — Fueled by fears related to immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Scottish Rite Masons’ Supreme Council passes a resolution calling for laws that require children to attend public schools, an effort to undercut the rise of Catholicism in the United States.

June 1920 — Oregon Masons adopt the resolution and begin pushing for a state ballot initiative.

July 6, 1922 — Ira B. Sturges of Baker City files a petition called the “Compulsory Education Bill” with the Oregon Secretary of State. It would require children ages 8 to 16 to attend public schools with instruction in English only.

Summer 1922 — Archbishop Alexander Christie forms the Catholic Civic Rights Association of Oregon to counter the initiative.

August 1923 — The Sisters of the Holy Names and Hill Military Academy, a Portland Episcopal school, file a suit in federal district court in Portland.

March 31, 1924 — A panel of the U.S. district court unanimously finds the law unconstitutional. Gov. Walter Pierce of Oregon appeals, sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 1, 1925 — The high court finds in favor of the sisters, saying the Oregon law infringes on their property and that parents, not the state, have the right and duty to choose education.

Dec. 31, 1929 — Pope Pius XI quotes Pierce vs. Society of Sisters in his encyclical Divini illius magistri on Catholic education.

The Magna Carta of education

By Sister Joan Maiers, SNJM

MARYLHURST — This November marks 100 years since passage of the Oregon School Bill, officially known as the Compulsory Education Bill.

This vote, with a margin of 53% to 47%, ended parents' rights to decide how to educate their children, ages 6-18, including their enrollment in private schools.

Also directly and adversely affected by this bill were the Sisters of the Holy Names. This group of religious educators, who had resided in Oregon since its statehood in 1859, operated a teacher certification school along with primary and secondary schools in Portland, Eugene, Salem, The Dalles, Medford, Grand Ronde and St. Paul. Their combined enrollment was 865 students.

The Compulsory Education Bill, sponsored by Klan-affiliated Scottish Rite Masons in 1922, stipulated all Oregon school children must attend public schools. The rationale was based on the belief that all faiths, races and social classes should attend public schools together in order to fuse the various racial, ethnic and religious elements of the state’s population.

Responding to the bill's threat to their professional and economic well-being, the Holy Names Sisters took legal action, directed by John Kavanaugh, who asserted that the bill destroyed the sisters' educational mission and economic worth, a violation of their 14th Amendment rights. At the same time, the sisters launched "a blizzard of press releases,” according to the National Catholic Welfare Conference.

In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Compulsory Education Bill unconstitutional. Chief Justice Louis Marshall referred to the case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, as "a landmark on our Constitutional history.”

Paula Abrams, constitutional lawyer and author, records that religious and educational leaders at the time hailed the case as the Magna Carta of education.

According to Abrams, “The Pierce opinion rests on the premise that . . . parents be able to teach their children according to their beliefs. Without this liberty, the State has the power to ‘standardize’ its citizens, forcing them to conform to an identity forged primarily by government.”

Sister Maiers, a longtime university professor, resides at Marylhurst. Sources — Holy Names Heritage Center archivist, Sarah Cantor; unpublished paper by Christine Mary [Katherine] King; and "The First Seventy-five Years in Oregon" by Mary Elizabeth West [S. Mary Evangeline].