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Prince v. Massachusetts

Citation. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 64 S. Ct. 438, 88 L. Ed. 645, 7 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P51,172 (U.S. Jan. 31, 1944)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Appellant appeals a conviction for violating Massachusetts’ child labor laws based upon her permitting her children to preach and sell pamphlets relating to the Jehovah Witness religion on the streets in the evening.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The state’s interest in protecting children through the child labor laws overrides the parent’s constitutional right to raise her children and the children’s constitutional right to practice religion as they choose.


Appellant Sarah Prince was the mother of two young sons and had legal custody of her niece. Appellant as well as her children are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They would distribute “Watchtower” and “Consolation” each week on the streets. She had allowed the children to do so previously, and had been warned against doing so by the school attendance officer. On December 18, 1941, she allowed the children to accompany her for the first time in the evening to distribute “Watchtower” and “Consolation” and engage in preaching work. The pamphlets were sold for five cents each, but no one accepted a copy from the niece or her aunt that evening. Appellant appeals a resulting conviction for violating Massachusetts’ child labor laws.


Does the freedom of religion of the First Amendment, and the parental rights secured by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit Massachusetts from enforcing the child labor law based upon these facts?


The State’s authority to prevent child labor overrides the constitutional protections in this case.
Two liberties are at stake, the parent’s right to bring up the child in the way he should go, and the child’s right to practice his or her religion. The custody, care, and nurture of the child reside first in the parents. However, neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation. The state as parens patriae may guard the general interest in a youth’s well being by requiring school attendance, and regulating or prohibiting the child’s labor.

The appellant urges that the activity in this case in no way harmed the niece. However, the state’s authority over children’s activities is broader than over like actions of adults. This is peculiarly true of public activities and in matters of employment. This case reduces itself to the question of whether the presence of the child’s guardian puts a limit on the state’s power. The parent may martyr themselves, but this does not mean they may martyr the child before the child reaches the age of majority. Massachusetts had determined that an absolute prohibition, though limited to streets and public places and to the incidental uses proscribed, is necessary to accomplish its legitimate objectives.


The Court acknowledges the parent’s right to raise her children and the child’s right to practice religion as she chooses, but find that the state’s interest in protecting children validates the child labor laws in this case.

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