Court Upholds Parental Rights

Published August 1, 2000

When the month of June 2000 opened, it was celebrated by school choice advocates as the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, which affirmed the right of parents to direct the education of their children.

Thirty days later, June had become a month with two additional high court rulings for choice advocates to celebrate: Mitchell v. Helms, affirming equal access for all children to federal education aid, and Troxel v Granville, affirming family privacy rights and limits on government.

In the 1925 Pierce decision, spurred by a Ku Klux Klan-backed law in Oregon outlawing private schools, the Court declared: “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.”

In the 2000 Troxel case, spurred by a Washington state law giving third parties visitation rights to children despite parental objections, the Court overturned the visitation law as a violation of a parent’s fundamental right to direct and control the upbringing of his or her child. The decision, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, affirmed that “the liberty interest at issue in this case–the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children–is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”

Someone–either the government or the parents–has to make decisions that are in the “best interests” of the child, points out Richard W. Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School. Given that no one is going to make the right decision all of the time, who has the stronger claim, and who is more likely to do right by children?

“It’s an easy question to answer, and . . . the Supreme Court got it right,” said Garnett.

For more information . . .

The majority opinion in Pierce v. Society of Sisters is available on the Internet at

An excellent series of articles on the Pierce decision appeared in the June 2000 newsletter of the Council for American Private Education. For more information or to subscribe, visit CAPE’s Web site at