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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Edgerton Bible Case


In 1886, Catholic parents in Edgerton protested against the reading of the King James Bible during opening exercises in the village schools. They considered the Douay version the only correct translation. When the school board refused to change, they took the board to court on the grounds that daily Protestant readings contradicted of Sec. 3, Article X of the Wisconsin Constitution, forbidding sectarian instruction in the public schools.

The circuit court rejected their protest, deciding in November 1888 that the readings were not sectarian because both translations were of the same work. The parents then took their case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. On March 18, 1890, nearly four years after the Catholic parents' initial complaint to the local school board, it over-ruled the circuit court. It concluded that reading the Bible did, in fact, constitute sectarian instruction, and that it illegally united the functions of church and state.

The Edgerton Bible case was not the only, or even the first, challenge to sectarian religious practices in public schools, but it had been especially well-researched and well-argued by the parties involved. Seventy years later, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer from the public schools in 1963, the Edgerton Bible case was one of the precedents that Justice William Brennan cited.

[Source: Geiger, John O. "The Edgerton Bible Case: Humphrey Desmond's Political Education of Wisconsin Catholics." Journal of Church and State vol 20 no. 1 (1978): 13-27; U.S. Reports 374 U.S. 203, pp. 282 & 292.]
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