Alton Lemon Lauded for Lemon Test by Annie Laurie Gaylor (November 2003)

This presentation was made on Oct. 12, 2003, at the 26th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Washington, D.C. 

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a category of membership reserved for a select, elect group of people, known as our “honorary officers.” The position is reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases in favor of the separation of church and state. Before saying more about tonight’s honorary officer, Alton Lemon, I want to introduce from the audience another honorary officer, Roy Torcaso, who won the 1961 case, Torcaso v. Watkins, overturning a Maryland statute barring nontheists from being notary publics.

Alton Lemon won the case Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971, which successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law, the first such law in the nation providing public tax funds to religious schools for teaching four secular subjects. Mr. Lemon, a member of the ACLU, volunteered to be part of the challenge of this law, which became a watershed for the Establishment Clause, and resulted in a historic decision bearing his name.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the parochial aid. In one of the enduring legacies of the Burger court, it also codified existing precedent on the Establishment Clause into a test called the “Lemon Test.” You can probably recite the “Lemon Test” with me. It has three prongs. If any of the three prongs are violated by an act of government, it is unconstitutional: 1) It must have a secular legislative purpose; 2) Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; 3) It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.

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

Three presidents (you can guess which ones) have openly sought to overturn it. Justice Scalia, who’s a pretty scary fellow himself, has made an odious comparison of the Lemon Test 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.” Despite attacks against it and attempts to modify and chip away at it, the Lemon Test endures.

When we invited Alton Lemon and his wife Augusta to attend our convention as special guests, I warned him: an awful lot of people here are going to want to shake your hand!

By Margaret Downey

As Annie Laurie told you, Alton could not attend the conference. Alton is ill from the radiation treatment he is getting to control a cancer situation. Alton sends his warm regards, and regrets not being able to attend. I thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for the opportunity to accept this “First Amendment Hero” award for my dear friend, Alton Lemon. When people visit Philadelphia, they visit well-known historical sites, such as the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge, and the Constitution Center. When I moved to Pennsylvania I visited those places too, but their historic significance paled in comparison to meeting and making friends with Alton.

His namesake case is a landmark decision, making all the difference when church/state separation issues are legally reviewed and argued. Annie Laurie just told you about the legal importance of the case. Now I want to tell you about Alton and why he is so important to all of us. You see, Alton’s community service, social activism, kindness, and passion should be emulated by everyone. There are many people in Philadelphia who share my love for Alton.

I discovered just how many when in 1996, I submitted an Alton Lemon Day proclamation to the City of Philadelphia. Mayor Edward G. Rendell immediately approved the text and declared June 28 “Alton Lemon Day.” One telephone call to Councilwoman Happy Fernandez was all that was needed to inspire her to submit a city council citation honoring Alton’s lifelong commitment to community service. The citation was unanimously approved by the council to coincide with the June 28 Alton Lemon Day celebration.

You might wonder how these very important people knew about Alton. Well, his reputation of outstanding citizenship is legendary in Philadelphia. Alton at one time held the position of both president and vice president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society. He served on the board of the Parents Union for Public Schools and was an active participant in the American Civil Liberties Union. It was through his affiliation with the ACLU that Alton became the plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman.

He grew up in Atlanta, where he experienced firsthand the harmful effects of discrimination and prejudice. Personal experiences and many people helped to shape the character and personality of Alton. As a youth, Alton played on the same basketball team as Martin Luther King Jr. We all know the impact Martin Luther King, Jr. had on society, and Alton will always cherish the special experience of being on the same basketball team as Dr. King.

Some of Dr. King’s courage must have transferred to Alton during their games together, because, much like King, Alton went on to fight for social change. Alton has been employed as an equal opportunity officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. He was a citizen participation adviser for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he was at one time the program director for the North City Congress Police-Community Relations Program in Philadelphia.

But Alton is not just a socially concerned individual. He is also a very intelligent man. Alton obtained a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in 1950. He was an aerospace engineer for the Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania and he was an automotive design engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md. Alton also served in the U.S. Army and saw duty in the Korean War. Alton is a patriotic, humble, honest and devoted family man.

He and his wife Augusta have been married for 52 years. They are a beautiful couple and I was thrilled to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their friends and family two years ago. And now I will be pleased to deliver this plaque to Alton and help him hang it in his home.

Margaret Downey is founder and director of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The chapter was a recent litigant in a case challenging the Ten Commandments in Chester County, Pa. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation