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Prince v. Massachusetts

321 U.S. 158 (1944)

Facts of the Case:

A Jehovah’s Witness woman was convicted for violating child labor laws. She was the guardian of a nine-year old girl and had three complaints filed against her: (1) refusal to disclose her child’s identity and age to a public officer whose duty was to enforce the statutes; (2) furnishing her with magazines, knowing she was to sell them unlawfully, that is, on the street; and (3) as child’s custodian, permitting her to work contrary to law. The woman and her husband were ordained ministers and routinely took their children out to distribute religious literature. The woman claimed that the state’s child labor laws violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights to exercise her religion and her equal protection rights.


In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld Massachusetts’ restriction on the abilities of children to sell religious literature.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Rutledge)

The State has a broad power to oversee the acts of children. Parental authority may be restricted when doing so is in the interests of a child’s welfare. While children share many of the rights of adults, they face different potential harms from similar activities. The main issue the Court must resolve is whether the parent’s presence makes it permissible for the child to perform an activity that would otherwise be prohibited. In finding that the dangers would still exist, the state is free to legislate against this activity in which it would be appropriate for adults to engage. This law does not constitute a restriction of religious freedom because the streets are not part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ property.


Of particular interest is the conclusion of Rutledge’s opinion in which he states that the state law does not restrict the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious freedom because the activity being outlawed occurs on public property. The religious significance of the act is minimized because of the venue in which it occurred rather than basing the evaluation on the nature of the act itself.


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