Alton Lemon Has Died

You probably don’t know who Alton Lemon is, but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you should be familiar with the test named after him: the Lemon test, which the Supreme Court applies — sometimes — to determine when the Establishment Clause has been violated. Alton Lemon died a few weeks ago.

Alton T. Lemon, a civil rights activist whose objection to state aid to religious schools gave rise to a watershed 1971 Supreme Court decision, died on May 4 in Jenkintown, Pa. He was 84…

Mr. Lemon was asked to join the suit challenging the Pennsylvania law after he criticized it at an A.C.L.U. meeting. The suit, conceived as a national test case, was filed in 1969 in federal court in Philadelphia by six religious, civil rights and educational groups along with Mr. Lemon and two other local taxpayers. The lawyers for the plaintiffs put Mr. Lemon’s name first in the caption of the case.

That was no accident, Professor Laycock said. The case was decided against the backdrop of resistance to the desegregation of public schools, and the choice of Mr. Lemon, who was black, underscored the point.

Mr. Lemon, for his part, said he was surprised to have lent his name to a leading piece of First Amendment jurisprudence. “I still don’t know why my name came out first on this case,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003.

About Ed Brayton

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN.

  • Gretchen

    I apologize to Mr. Lemon for so many times thinking that the test named after him serves mainly to establish that laws which have no secular purpose are, themselves, lemons.

  • bruceheerssen

    I’m surprised to learn that there is no wikipedia entry for Mr. Lemon.

    There is an entry about Lemon v. Kurtzman, of course.

  • JustaTech

    Not to be confused with the lemon *law*, which is about terrible cars.

  • Donovan


    Even though I knew the “Lemon Test” referred to a Mr. Lemon, I always think of the sour taste of lemons when I see it and associate it with litmus tests.

  • abb3w

    Huh. While I was familiar with the Lemon Test, I didn’t realize the material of Lemon v Kurtzman was so similar seeming to modern-day “vouchers” programs.