Goodbye to the Namesake of the ‘Lemon Test’

Anyone who has a cursory understanding of America’s laws regarding church/state separation should be familiar with certain landmark Supreme Court cases. Cases like Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp and Lemon v. Kurtzman.

That last one in particular is important not necessarily for its immediate ruling (does anyone even remember what the case was about?) but for the legacy it left behind: The Lemon Test.

The Lemon Test said that there were three rules that legislators had to follow when it came to laws concerning religion:

  1. The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
  2. The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
  3. The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

Break any of these rules and the whole law becomes unconstitutional. It’s a precedence that has been used for decades and its namesake was Alton Toussaint Lemon:

Lemon objected to the fact that his state of Pennsylvania was giving money to religious schools for teaching secular subjects in the late 1960s and his victory in the Supreme Court led to the Lemon Test being used in subsequent church/state cases.

Sadly, Lemon died earlier this month at the age of 84. The obituaries are finally coming around, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation has the most heartfelt one, not surprising considering what he has meant to them:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a very rare, very elite category of members who are “honorary officers.” The title is reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases in favor of the separation of church and state. We’re sorry to report that Alton Lemon, one of our honorary officers, died on May 4…

[The Lemon Test] was not new law, per se, but a kind of noble attempt to clarify and make the Establishment Clause idiot-proof. The “Lemon Test” has been invoked in virtually every lawsuit FFRF has ever taken. It is our best friend.

Conservative politicians and justices will no doubt continue to chip away at church-state separation but Lemon’s legacy is one of the major obstacles in their path. For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Richard Wade

    The effects of our actions, for good or ill, live on after us. Sometimes those effects are clear, bright, and obvious as in Alton Lemon’s case, and sometimes they become more subtle and eventually imperceptible as they spread out from person to person, as in a kind word, or a simple constructive act. Perceived or not, our effects go on.

    Thank you, Alton.

  • Rain

    His was a good name because subconsciously we can associate the Lemon Test with the “lemons” that used car salesperson con artists try to dump on us. That’s actually where I thought they got the term from when I first heard it since the test is a baloney detector protecting us from scammers.

  • allein

    I thought the same thing when I first heard about the Lemon test.

  • wmdkitty

    As did I.

  • Jono H

    There is no Lemon test here in Australia. Our establishment clause has been severely watered down by an outrageous interpretation of the word “for”.

  • Artor

    Me too. It was years before I realized it was named after a Mr. Lemon.