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Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971),[1] was a case argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. The court ruled in an 8–1[2] decision that Pennsylvania's Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act (represented through David Kurtzman) from 1968 was unconstitutional, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The act allowed the Superintendent of Public Schools to reimburse private schools (mostly Catholic) for the salaries of teachers who taught in these private schools, from public textbooks and with public instructional materials. The decision also upheld a decision of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, which had struck down the Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act providing state funds to supplement salaries at private elementary schools by 15 percent.[3] As in Pennsylvania, most of these funds were spent on Catholic schools.

Lemon v. Kurtzman
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 3, 1971
Decided June 28, 1971
Full case nameAlton J. Lemon, et al. v. David H. Kurtzman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Pennsylvania, et al.; John R. Earley, et al. v. John DiCenso, et al.; William P. Robinson, Jr. v. John DiCenso, et al.
Citations403 U.S. 602 (more)
91 S. Ct. 2105; 29 L. Ed. 2d 745; 1971 U.S. LEXIS 19
Case history
PriorLemon v. Kurtzman, 310 F. Supp. 35 (E.D. Pa. 1969); DiCenso v. Robinson, 316 F. Supp. 112 (D.R.I. 1970)
SubsequentOn remand to 348 F. Supp. 300 (E.D. Pa. 1972), aff'd, 411 U.S. 192 (1973)
For a law to be considered constitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the law must (1) have a legitimate secular purpose, (2) not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) not result in an excessive entanglement of government and religion.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Case opinions
MajorityBurger, joined by Black, Douglas, Harlan, Stewart, Marshall, Blackmun
ConcurrenceDouglas, joined by Black, Brennan, Marshall (who filed a separate statement)
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; R.I. Gen. Laws Ann. 16-51-1 et seq. (Supp. 1970); Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 24, §§ 5601-5609 (Supp. 1971)


Lemon testEdit

The Court's decision in this case established the "Lemon test" (named after the lead plaintiff Alton Lemon),[4] which details legislation concerning religion. It is threefold:

  1. The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (Also known as the Purpose Prong)
  2. The principal or primary effect of the statute must neither advance nor inhibit religion. (Also known as the Effect Prong)
  3. The statute must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)
    1. Character and purpose of institution benefited.
    2. Nature of aid the state provides.
    3. Resulting relationship between government and religious authority.

If any of these prongs are violated, the government's action is deemed unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The act stipulated that "eligible teachers must teach only courses offered in the public schools, using only materials used in the public schools, and must agree not to teach courses in religion." Still, a three-judge panel found 25% of the State's elementary students attended private schools, about 95% of those attended Roman Catholic schools, and the sole beneficiaries under the act were 250 teachers at Roman Catholic schools.

The court found that the parochial school system was "an integral part of the religious mission of the Catholic Church," and held that the Act fostered "excessive entanglement" between government and religion, thus violating the Establishment Clause.[1]

Held: Both statutes are unconstitutional under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as the cumulative impact of the entire relationship arising under the statutes involves excessive entanglement between government and religion.[1]

Later useEdit

Conservative justices, such as Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, have scrutinized the application of the Lemon test.[5] The test was compared to a "ghoul in a late night horror movie" by Justice Scalia in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District (1993).[5]

The Supreme Court itself has applied the Lemon test in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000),[6] while in McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union (2005) the court did not overturn the Lemon test, even though it was urged to do so by the petitioner.[7]

The test was also central to Kitzmiller v. Dover, a 2005 intelligent design case before the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.[8]

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the test in Int'l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump (2017) upholding a preliminary injunction against President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration from certain majority-Muslim countries.[9]

In concurring opinions to The American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2019), some of the Court's more conservative justices heavily criticized the Lemon test. Justice Samuel Alito stated that the Lemon test had "short-comings" and that "as Establishment Clause cases involving a great array of laws and practices came to the Court, it became more and more apparent that the Lemon test could not resolve them."[10] Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the Court "no longer applies the old test articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman" and said that "the Court’s decisions over the span of several decades demonstrate that the Lemon test is not good law and does not apply to Establishment Clause cases."[10] Although the Court did not overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, Justice Thomas stated that he "would take the logical next step and overrule the Lemon test in all contexts" because "the Lemon test is not good law."[10] Additionally, Justice Neil Gorsuch called Lemon v. Kurtzman a "misadventure" and claimed that it has now been "shelved" by the Court.[10] Justice Elena Kagan, however, defended the Lemon test, stating that "although I agree that rigid application of the Lemon test does not solve every Establishment Clause problem, I think that test’s focus on purposes and effects is crucial in evaluating government action in this sphere—as this very suit shows."[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
  2. ^ "Lemon v. Kurtzman". Oyez. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
  3. ^ DiCenso v. Robinson, 316 F. Supp. 112 (D.R.I. 1970).
  4. ^ Liptak, Adam (2013-05-26). "Alton T. Lemon, civil rights activist, dies at 84". New York Times. Retrieved 2014-08-15.
  5. ^ a b Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384, 398 (1993) (Scalia, dissenting).
  6. ^ Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000).
  7. ^ McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844 (2005).
  8. ^ Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005).
  9. ^ Int'l Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, 857 F.3d 554 (4th Cir. 2017).
  10. ^ a b c d e Am. Legion v. Am. Humanist Ass'n, No. 17-1717, 588 U.S. ___ (2019).

Further readingEdit

  • Alley, Robert S. (1999). The Constitution & Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 82–96. ISBN 1-57392-703-1.
  • Kritzer, Herbert M.; Richards, Mark J. (2003). "Jurisprudential Regimes and Supreme Court Decisionmaking: The Lemon Regime and Establishment Clause Cases". Law & Society Review. 37 (4): 827–840. doi:10.1046/j.0023-9216.2003.03704005.x.

External linksEdit