Alton Lemon

On this date in 1928, Alton Lemon, who would go on to win a major state/church victory before the U.S. Supreme court, was born in McDonald, Ga. He grew up in Atlanta, Ga. As a youth, Alton played on the same basketball team as Martin Luther King, Jr. He 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 an automotive design engineer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md. Mr. Lemon also worked as an Equal Opportunity Officer for the U.S. Department of Energy. He was a Citizen Participation Advisor 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. Alton also served in the U.S. Army and saw duty in the Korean War. Alton Lemon served both as president and vice-president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society at one time, served on the board of the Parents Union for Public Schools and was an active participant in the American Civil Liberties Union. He was married to Augusta Lemon for more than 50 years.

Alton Lemon was an "honorary officer" of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a position reserved for freethinkers who have won Supreme Court cases in favor of the separation of church and state. He received a "Hero of the First Amendment" award at the 2003 FFRF convention (although health problems at the last minute prevented him from accepting it in person). 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. As a member of the ACLU, Mr. Lemon volunteered to challenge the law, which resulted in a decision that is a watershed for the Establishment Clause, and which historic decision bears his name. The United States 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." 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. Despite attacks against it and attempts to modify and chip away at it, the Lemon Test endures. It is our best friend. D. 2013.

“If any of the three prongs of the Lemon Test 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.”

—The Lemon Test, promulgated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 US 602 (1971)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; Photo donated by Alton Lemon

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