When the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Shut Down Religious Schools

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On June 1, 1925, the Supreme Court issued one of its most important rulings ever on education and religious liberty. In its unanimous decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court struck down one of the most obnoxious state laws in American history, a 1922 Oregon statute that would have forced all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools.

What makes that Oregon state law especially strange is that it was the brainchild of the Ku Klux Klan.

We might be puzzled at the Klan’s involvement—wasn’t the Klan just a Southern thing? And didn’t they just target African Americans?

Well, the Klan was certainly strong in the white South. In its manifestations during Reconstruction (1860s-1870s) and during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan’s terroristic tactics in the South were typically directed toward outspoken or politically active African Americans. But the 1920s saw a different kind of Ku Klux Klan that, though it remained hostile to blacks, directed much of its fury at immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews. Much of the Klan’s strength in the 1920s was in the Midwest and West, especially in urban areas that had large numbers of recent immigrants.

The “Klansman’s Creed” in the 1920s ended with the declaration that “I am a native-born American citizen and I believe my rights in this country are superior to those of foreigners.”

Klan leader Hiram Evans gave a speech before an audience numbering in the tens of thousands at the Texas State Fair in 1923, explaining why Jews, Catholics, and African Americans could never be “assimilated” into white Protestant American society. His speech became a popular Klan pamphlet titled The Menace of Modern Immigration.

In addition to his derogatory comments about blacks and Jews, Evans explained that Catholics could never assimilate because they owed ultimate allegiance to a foreign power, the pope in Rome. He argued that, if the tide of immigration must be allowed to continue, then the United States should establish a quota restricting “inferior foreign elements.” He warned Klansmen and their sympathizers that “ten percent of all the aliens coming to us were from Mexico,” and that the United States needed to work on fortifying its borders in order to stem the flow.

In this cartoon, Klansmen protect America's shores from the Catholic power represented by the Irish and St. Patrick. From White, Alma "Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty" Zarephath, NJ: 1926 p.21. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
In this cartoon, Klansmen protect America’s shores from the Catholic power represented by the Irish and St. Patrick. From White, Alma “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty” Zarephath, NJ: 1926 p.21. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Most Ku Klux Klan activism took the form of rallies and threats of vigilante violence. The Klan did make notable legislative efforts to shut down Catholic and other religious schools, and to keep Catholics from serving as public school teachers. Most of these laws did not enjoy enough support to overcome concerns about religious liberty protections. However, Oregon voters did pass their law in 1922 that required all students to go to a public school.

This was a direct assault on Catholic parochial schools in the state, but it would have also prohibited children from attending denominational schools run by Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, and others. Before the law went into effect, however, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that it was unconstitutional. The justices ruled that the Constitution “excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.”

This was a critical precedent in which the court affirmed that decisions about the education of children was primarily the prerogative of parents, not the state. Obviously, this ruling has continuing relevance as we debate issues today related to homeschooling, school choice, and similar controversies. Although courts have typically frowned upon any kind of direct state financial support for religious schools, America has come to honor the principle that education decisions, including the choice to give a child a private or home-based religious education, belong to the parents.

This is also an instructive case since the Oregon law entailed American “Protestants” (though we might question the spiritual state of those associated with the Ku Klux Klan) trying to deny the freedom of parents in education and their right to religious liberty. As we consider controversies over immigration and the construction of mosques today, we should remember that trying to deny religious liberty to “outsider” groups can turn against you, if you one day become an “outsider” too.

Portions of this post are derived from my forthcoming American history textbook from B&H Academic.

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