Alton Lemon stood the ‘test’ of time

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a very rare, very elite category of members who are “honorary officers,” a title reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases bolstering state-church separation. We’re sorry to report that Alton Lemon, one of our honorary officers, died May 4 at age 84 in Jenkintown, Pa.

He was a plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), which successfully challenged a Pennsylvania law, the first such law in the nation, which gave public tax funds to religious schools. He was the recipient of the First Amendment Hero Award at FFRF’s 26th annual convention in 2003 in Washington, D.C.

Lemon volunteered to be part of the American Civil Liberties Union challenge of the law. In a landmark 8-0 ruling, the Supreme Court invalidated the parochial aid. (Justice Thurgood Marshall didn’t participate in the case.)

In one of the enduring legacies of the court headed by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the decision also codified Establishment Clause precedent into what soon became known as the “Lemon test.” If any of its three prongs are violated by an act of government, the act is deemed unconstitutional:

• It must have a secular legislative purpose.

• Its principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion.

• It must not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.

This 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.

It has been hated and reviled by the Religious Right. Three presidents (you can guess which ones) have openly sought to overturn it. Justice Antonin Scalia, a pretty scary fellow himself, odiously compared 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.”

According to The New York Times, Alton Toussaint Lemon was born Oct. 19, 1928, in McDonough, Ga., where his father owned a tailor shop. He received a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1950.

After service in the U.S. Army, he settled in Philadelphia, earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and worked in a series of government jobs. He was active in the NAACP and the ACLU and was the first African-American president of the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia.

“One of our personal regrets is that we never had the chance to meet Alton to shake his hand,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “He was slated to accept his award in person at our 2003 convention but couldn’t attend due to illness.
“Our memorial to Alton will be to redouble FFRF’s efforts to do what we can to help ensure that his name and his legacy live on,” Gaylor added. “Our sincere condolences to his widow Augusta and his family.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation