From the Klan to the Court: A Brief Analysis of Alien Ideas

Article excerpt

On May 23,1992, Pope John Paul II beatified Eulalie Durocher and declared her to be "a woman for all times." Blessed Eulalie was born in Quebec in 1811, the tenth of eleven children, in the village of St. Antoine on the Richelieu River. Three of her brothers became priests and a sister entered the Congregation of Notre Dame. In the year 1843, recognizing how little opportunity young girls at that time had for education, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. It was the first religious congregation in Canada to focus on education. After only six years as Superior of the Order she founded, Blessed Eulalie Durocher passed away. (Her order, nonetheless, continued to flourish. Today there are approximately 570 SNJM Sisters and about 400 Associates carrying out the Society's mission on four continents.)

In 1859 Francis Norbert Blanchet, the first Archbishop of Oregon City, Oregon, invited 12 SNJM Sisters to leave Quebec to bring their education ministry to his diocese. Their mission was directed toward the full development of the human person through education, social justice, contemplation, and the arts.

The good Sisters did not think that they were imposing foreign ideologies or un-American ideas on the Oregonian children they taught. They saw themselves as helping their students to become mature, educated persons capable of acting as socially responsible citizens in the world. However, by the early 1920s, the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan saw them from a rather different perspective and sought to protect Oregonian children from what the Klan believed to be alien and un-American ideas.

In the early 1920s, Oregon was home to approximately 14,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, including the mayor of Portland, many politicians, and police officers. They regarded themselves as "real" Americans and felt duty bound to target the Catholic Church, the largest provider of private education. Fiery crosses and marches in Ku Klux Klan regalia were common sights in Oregon at that time. Thus began a heated clash between the Klan's narrowly conceived form of nationalism and a religious pluralism that seemed protected by the United States Constitution. It was, indeed, a strange clash, since the Klan's own Protestantism and many of members' ancestors came from foreign lands. Even their name, Ku Klux Klan, appears to be exotic, being derived from the Greek word kuklos (μ), meaning "circle" and the Scottish Gaelic clann, referring to a group of people joined together for a common purpose.

The Klan was instrumental in electing Democrat Walter M. Pierce governor of Oregon. While governor-elect, he appeared before the La Grande Provisional Klan on November 21, 1922 and personally thanked the Klansmen for their support. More important for historical purposes, the Klan also played a significant role in getting The Oregon Compulsory Education Act passed in 1922. The Act compelled all children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend public schools. If implemented, it would mean the dissolution of all Catholic schools in the state of Oregon, along with all other private schools. The Sisters, who at that time operated many schools in Oregon, did not sit idly by. They sued and the case came before the United States Supreme Court.

Representatives for the state of Oregon (the "appellants") argued that the state had an overriding interest in overseeing and controlling the providers of education. In fact, they claimed that the state's interest in overseeing the education of its citizens was so great that it overrode the parents' right to choose which provider of education was best for their children. It was even argued that Oregon children are "the State's children."

By contrast, the "appellees" replied that the state did not have a right to absolute control over the system in which a child should be educated. They held that parents have a right to send their children to the schools they saw fit, including religious schools. …