We’ve lost Alton Lemon, but Lemon Test lives

Statement By Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor

FFRF Co-Presidents

alton lemon

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. He was born in 1928.

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 now bears his name. The 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, which is called the “Lemon Test.” You can probably recite the “Lemon Test” with us. It has three prongs and 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 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 Scalia, who’s a pretty scary fellow himself, 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.”

Sadly, we have lost Alton Lemon. But the Lemon Test lives!

Lemon, the first African-American president of the Philadelphia Ethical Society, was a Philadelphia resident, director of the Police Community Relations Division of the North City Congress, but gained national fame for being the plaintiff in the 1971 Supreme Court case, Lemon v. Kurtzman. He won the 2003 First Amendment Hero Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his successful challenge of Pennsylvania’s use of public tax funds to support religious schools.

One of our personal regrets is that we never had the chance to meet Alton to shake his hand! He was slated to accept his Freethought Hero Award, in person, at our 2003 national convention and became too ill to attend.

Our memorial to Alton will be to redouble FFRF’s efforts to do what we can to help to ensure that Alton Lemon’s name and his legacy will live on.

Our sincere condolences to his widow Augusta and his family.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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