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Separation of church and state is in the news again.

Last week, two competing nativity scenes were erected in the Capitol, one overtly Christian and one celebrating the winter solstice. In suburban Milwaukee, school officials angered some by excluding a Hindu song from a holiday concert while including Christian and Jewish songs. And Gov. Scott Walker pulled no punches about calling the tree in the rotunda a "Christmas tree" rather than a "holiday tree."

But an early battle in the nation's separation debate took place in Edgerton more than 120 years ago.

In 1886, a group of Catholic parents protested the use of readings from the King James Bible to start the school day. When officials refused to stop, the parents went to court, charging that daily Protestant readings contradicted the Wisconsin Constitution's prohibition on sectarian instruction.

When the circuit court rejected their argument in November 1888, the parents appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. It ruled on March 18, 1890, that reading any specific version of the Bible in public schools constituted sectarian instruction and failed to adequately separate church and state.

Seventy years later, in 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools, the Edgerton Bible case was one of the precedents cited by Justice William Brennan.

 

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