Public Schools

Alton Lemon – The Man Behind The 50-Year-Old Lemon Test

  Liz Hayes

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that pulled together principles from several decades of religious-freedom court decisions and organized them into a straightforward, comprehensive set of guidelines that would enable other courts to consistently decide church-state cases and government officials to easily understand what the Constitution required of them.

That case was Lemon v. Kurtzman, and the guidelines came to be known as the Lemon test. In order for a government action or policy to meet the constitutional requirements of church-state separation, it must meet all three of these criteria:

  • Its purpose must be predominantly secular.
  • It must not have a principal effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion.
  • It must not excessively entangle government with religion.

If you’d like to read more about the history, usage and current status of the Lemon test, check out my recent Church & State magazine article.

Today, I’d like to celebrate the Lemon test’s anniversary by focusing on the man behind the test that bears his name. Here are a few interesting things I learned about Alton Lemon during my research:

  1. Lemon was an Army veteran, government employee and father from Philadelphia. He was active in both the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. Raised a Baptist, he described his beliefs as “ethical humanism” in a 2003 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  2. Lemon opposed the idea of public money being sent to private schools – it was “an issue around which I have some strong feelings,” he told the Inquirer in 1991. Lemon, who was Black, feared that funneling public money to private schools would erode the quality of public education, which would be especially harmful to minority children: “If a lot of public funds are siphoned off, Blacks and minorities are going to suffer.”
  3. That’s why Lemon agreed to be a plaintiff when the ACLU, NAACP, Americans United and several other organizations filed a lawsuit in 1969 to challenge a Pennsylvania law that diverted taxpayer money directly to private religious schools to pay for teachers’ salaries, textbooks and instructional materials. Ostensibly, the aid was to be used only for “secular” education at the private schools, but the Supreme Court determined that government could not ensure the money wasn’t spent on religious purposes without becoming overly entangled with religion.
  4. Lemon was a two-time winner at the Supreme Court. Two years after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the justices applied the test named after him in Sloan v. Lemon, which challenged a Pennsylvania law that allowed tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. Lemon won again.
  5. Lemon was tangentially involved in at least one other church-state case: In 2002, he listened in on arguments over a Ten Commandments plaque on the wall of a Philadelphia-area courthouse. Upon learning that Lemon was in the courtroom audience, the judge introduced him. That judge, correctly applying the Lemon test, ordered the plaque to be removed. (Sadly, a year later, a federal appeals court reversed that decision and allowed the plaque to stay, citing its historical significance.)
  6. When Lemon died in 2013 at the age of 84, his contributions to church-state separation and civil rights advocacy were noted in The New York Times. Late in life, Lemon wasn’t feeling optimistic about the future of the test that bears his name. “Separation of church and state is gradually losing ground, I regret to say,” Lemon told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003.

What I take from Alton Lemon’s story is that fighting for freedom and equality is never quick or easy, and it’s rarely linear – you win some, you lose some, but the key is to press on. Lemon kept pressing on, and he showed that individuals can effect real change. May that be Alton Lemon’s legacy, above and beyond the Lemon test.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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