May 28, 2013
In 1968, the state of Pennsylvania enacted a law that subsidized private religious schools with taxpayer dollars. The following year, a civil rights activist with degrees in mathematics and social work, Alton Lemon, joined a lawsuit challenging that statute for violating the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion. In 1971, the Supreme Court heard the case (Lemon v. Kurtzman) and struck down the law, establishing what became known as the “Lemon test.” That decision continues to serve as a keystone for subsequent decisions that have reinforced the principle of separation between church and state.
Alton Lemon died earlier this month, on May 4, at the age of 84.
The Lemon test has been invoked in several high-profile Supreme Court cases concerning the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, including cases restricting prayer at graduation ceremonies (Lee v. Weisman) and prayer at school functions (Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe), and on the public display of religious symbols (McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky). The test was also used by Judge John E. Jones III in his decision in the famous “intelligent design” case in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which a school’s teaching of a thinly veiled version of creationism was challenged and defeated in federal court.
We at the Center for Inquiry (CFI) offer our condolences to Mr. Lemon’s family and friends, as we recognize and honor his act of bravery – allowing his name to be placed atop this controversial and historic case – and the impact it has had on our legal system, our educational system, and our understanding of the role religion ought to be allowed to play in public life.
Tellingly, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has been forthright about his disdain for the Lemon test, in 1993 likening it to “some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried.”
As Lemon himself recognized, the struggle against religion’s encroachment into public education has had its victories and its failures. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, “Separation of church and state is gradually losing ground, I regret to say.”
But we at CFI are working every day to advance the cause for which Lemon is known by building upon the foundation laid by his historic case. Our Office of Public Policy has been lobbying government officials and mustering public support for policies based on science and reason, and free from the interference of religion and its interests. For some examples, we’ve pushed the Department of Health and Human Services to stand firm against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on contraceptive coverage; we’ve urged the Obama administration to stop federally funded discrimination in hiring, under the guise of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; we’ve helped stop efforts to introduce creationism into the Indiana public school system; and we’ve fought the many state and federal attempts at creating voucher programs that would send public funds into religious schools.
There is much work to be done, and today we honor Lemon’s memory and his legacy. Thank you, Alton Lemon.
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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI‘s web address is https://centerforinquiry.org.