Lemon v. Kurtzman (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 403 U.S. 602 (1971)
Alton J. Lemon
David H. Kurtzman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
That state payment of teachers of secular subjects in parochial schools violates the First Amendment mandate of separation of church and state.
Chief Lawyer for Appellant
Henry W. Sawyer III
Chief Lawyer for Appellee
J. Shane Creamer
Justices for the Court
Hugo Lafayette Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
None (Thurgood Marshall did not participate)
Date of Decision
28 June 1971
The Supreme Court struck down the state laws enabling such payments.
Lemon v. Kurtzman is important for establishing the "Lemon Test," a three-pronged test for determining whether a statute passes scrutiny under the First...
(The entire section is 919 words.)
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Lemon v. Kurtzman (Supreme Court Drama)
Appellant: Alton J. Lemon, et al.
Appellee: David H. Kurtzman, Superintendent of Public Instruction of Pennsylvania, et al.
Appellant's Claim: That Rhode Island and Pennsylvania violated the First Amendment by paying the salaries of teachers of secular (non-religious) subjects in private, religious schools.
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Henry W. Sawyer III
Chief Lawyer for Appellee: J. Shane Cramer
Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall (Rhode Island cases only), Potter Stewart, Byron R. White (Pennsylvania case only)
Justices Dissenting: Byron R. White (Rhode Island cases only)
Date of Decision: June 28, 1971
Decision: State laws allowing such payments violate the First Amendment separation of church and state.
Significance: The decision announced the "Lemon Test," a three-part test for determining whether a law violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment.
In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Americans have a constitutional right to send their children to private schools. Many private schools in America are religious. The question arose whether states can give money to private, religious schools to help them operate
Answering this question depends on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The clause says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Although the First Amendment refers to the federal government, state and local governments must obey it under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents states and local governments from violating a person's right to life, liberty (or freedom), and property.
According to the Supreme Court, the Establishment Clause means government may not pass laws which "aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." Some people think that this means states cannot give any help to religious schools, because that would be aiding religion. Over the years, however, the Supreme Court decided that states could give general help to religious schools if they give the same help to all schools, public and private. For example, states may help religious schools with bus transportation, school lunches, health services, and secular (non-religious) textbooks. The Supreme Court drew the line, however, in Lemon v. Kurtzman.
The Lemon case involved two different laws, one in Rhode Island and the other in Pennsylvania. The laws allowed Rhode Island and Pennsylvania to help pay the salaries of teachers of secular (non-religious) subjects in religious schools. Both states passed the laws because it was becoming more expensive to operate private schools, and the states wanted to help such schools with their costs.
Alton J. Lemon was a resident and taxpayer in Pennsylvania. He and others filed lawsuits in federal court to challenge the two laws. They said that the laws violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause by aiding the religions that operated the private schools, most of which were Roman Catholic. The federal court dismissed Lemon's case, or threw it out of court, because it did not think Lemon had a valid complaint. Lemon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Lemon Test
The Supreme Court ruled in Lemon's favor, deciding that both laws violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger admitted that the Establishment Clause does not require a total separation of church and state. Some interaction is allowed, which explains why the states may give general help to religious schools, such as bus transportation and school lunches.
Justice Burger said, however, that there must be a limit to the amount of interaction between government and religion. Justice Burger announced a three-part test for determining if a law is valid under the Establishment Clause. First, the state must have a secular (non-religious) reason for passing the law. Second, the law's main effect must neither help nor hurt religion. Third, the law must not require excessive entanglement, or interaction, between government and religion.
The Court decided that both laws failed under the third part of the Lemon test. The laws allowed the states to help pay the salaries of teachers of secular subjects. To make sure those teachers taught only secular subjects and not religion, the state would have to supervise the schools and the teachers. Justice Burger said that state supervision of religious schools would involve too much interaction between government and religion.
Justice Burger finished his opinion by emphasizing that the Court's decision was not meant to be hostile toward religion or religious schools. Instead, it was meant to protect religion from becoming controlled by government. He said that under the First Amendment, "religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice, and that while some involvement and entanglement are inevitable, lines must be drawn."
Where's the freedom of religion?
Justice Byron R. White wrote a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with part of the Court's decision. Justice White said that paying teachers of secular subjects was the same as giving religious schools secular textbooks and other benefits that public schools receive. To deny such help to religious schools was a form of discrimination against religion, which Justice White suggested is not allowed under the First Amendment.
The battle continues
As of 1999, states still struggle with the separation of church and state. Some states that want to improve education choices for poor children have created voucher systems. Poor children may use the vouchers to attend private schools instead of public schools. These programs sometimes allow children to use the vouchers to attend religious schools. Some people think this violates the separation of church and state by aiding religion. The issue may be the subject of another Supreme Court case.
Suggestions for further reading
Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Religion. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990.
Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Gay, Kathlyn. Church and State: Government and Religion in the United States. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.
Hirst, Mike. Freedom of Belie.f New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.
Kleeberg, Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Sherrow, Victoria. Freedom of Worship. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.
The Supreme Court: Selections from the Four-Volume Encyclopedia of the American Constitution and Supplement. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999.
World Book Encyclopedia, 1997 ed., entry on "Burger, Warren Earl." Chicago: World Book, 1997.