Lemon v Kurtzman

School isn't just about academics: kids learn about social norms and traditions through their interactions with each other and with teachers. Students' parents often want to have a say in what they're learning, too - especially when it comes to religion. But who's responsible for making sure that the Constitutional separation between church and state extends to the school system?

Lemon v Kurtzman Lemon v Kurtzman

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    In 1968 and 1969, some parents felt that laws in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island crossed that line. They didn't want their taxes going to paying for religious education, so they brought their argument to the Supreme Court in a case called Lemon v. Kurtzman.

    Lemon v. Kurtzman Significance

    Lemon v. Kurtzman is a landmark Supreme Court case that set a precedent for future cases regarding the relationship between government and religion, particularly in the area of government funding for religious schools. Below, we'll talk more about this and the Lemon test!

    Lemon v. Kurtzman First Amendment

    Before we get into the facts of the case, it's important to understand two aspects of religion and government, both of which are found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment says this:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

    Establishment Clause

    The Establishment Clause refers to the phrase in the First Amendment that says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Establishment Clause clarifies that the federal government does not have the authority to establish an official state religion.

    Religion and politics have been in tension for centuries. Leading up to the American Revolution and the creation of the Constitution, many European countries had state religions. The combination of church and state often led to people outside of the main religion being persecuted and religious leaders using their cultural influence to interfere with policy and governance.

    The Establishment Clause has been interpreted to mean that government:

    • can neither support nor hinder religion
    • can't favor religion over non-religion.

    Civil Liberties vs. Civil Rights Lemon v. Kurtzman Separation between church and state protest StudySmarterFigure 1: This protest sign advocates for the separation between church and state. Source: Edward Kimmel, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0

    Free Exercise Clause

    The Free Exercise Clause immediately follows the Establishment Clause. The full clause reads: "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise thereof [of religion]." This clause is a little different from the Establishment Clause because it doesn't focus on restricting government power. Rather, it focuses on explicitly protecting individuals' right to practice whatever religion they want.

    Both of these clauses together represent the idea of Freedom of Religion and the separation of church and state. However, they have often run into conflicts, leading to the Supreme Court having to step in and make decisions.

    Lemon v. Kurtzman Summary

    Lemon v. Kurtzman all started with the passage of two acts that were intended to help out some struggling church-affiliated schools.

    Pennsylvania Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1968)

    The Pennsylvania Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1968) allowed some state funds to go to reimbursing religious-affiliated schools for things like teachers' salaries, classroom materials, and textbooks. The Act stipulated that the funds could be used only for secular classes.

    Civil Liberties vs. Civil Rights Lemon v. Kurtzman State funding for education Governor Tom Wolf Pennsylvania StudySmarterFigure 2: State government is responsible for administering and funding public education. Pictured above is Pennsylvania Governor Wolf celebrating a school funding initiative in 2021. Source: Governor Tom Wolf, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0

    Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act (1969)

    The Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act (1969) allowed government funding to help supplement teachers' salaries in religiously affiliated schools. The Act stipulated that the teachers receiving the funds had to teach only subjects that were also taught in public schools and had to agree not to teach religious classes. All 250 recipients of the funds worked for Catholic schools.

    Lemon v. Kurtzman 1971

    People in both states decided to sue the states over the laws. In Rhode Island, a group of citizens sued the state in a case called Earley et al. v. DiCenso. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, a group of taxpayers brought a case, including a parent named Alton Lemon whose child attended public school. The case was called Lemon v. Kurtzman.

    Court Disagreement

    The Rhode Island court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it represented an "excessive entanglement" with government and religion, and could be seen as supporting religion, which would violate the Establishment Clause.

    However, the Pennsylvania court said that the Pennsylvania law was permissible.

    Lemon v. Kurtzman Ruling

    Because of the contradiction between the Rhode Island and Pennsylvania rulings, the Supreme Court stepped in to make a decision. Both cases were rolled under Lemon v. Kurtzman.

    Civil Liberties vs. Civil Rights Lemon v. Kurtzman Supreme Court Building StudySmarterFigure 3: The case of Lemon v. Kurtzman went to the Supreme Court, pictured above. Source: Joe Ravi, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

    Central Question

    The Supreme Court focused on one central question in Lemon v. Kurtzman: Do Pennsylvania and Rhode Island's laws providing some state funding to non-public, non-secular (i.e. religiously affiliated) schools violate the First Amendment? Specifically, does it violate the Establishment Clause?

    "Yes" Arguments

    Those who thought the answer to the central question was "yes" brought up the following points:

    • Religiously affiliated schools deeply intertwine faith and education
    • By providing funding, the government could be seen as endorsing religious views
    • Taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for education around religious beliefs that they disagree with
    • Even if the funding went to teachers and courses on secular subjects, it's too difficult to differentiate between paying for the secular aspects of school and the religious missions.
    • The funding represented an excessive entanglement between government and religion.

    Everson v. Board of Education and the Wall of Separation

    Opponents of the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island laws pointed to the precedent set in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). The case centered around public funding for school buses that transported children to both public and private, religiously affiliated schools. The Supreme Court ruled that the practice did not violate the Establishment Clause. They did, however, create a new doctrine around the "wall of separation" between church and state. In making the decision, they cautioned that the "wall of separation" must remain high.

    "No" Arguments

    Those who argued in favor of the laws and said that they did NOT violate the Establishment Clause pointed to the following arguments:

    • The funds only go to specified secular subjects
    • The Superintendent has to approve textbooks and instructional materials
    • The laws prohibited the funds from going to any subject matter around religion, moral norms, or modes of worship.

    Supreme Court Decision

    The Supreme Court answered "yes" in an 8-1 decision, siding with the court in Rhode Island that deemed the law an excessive entanglement with religion. They noted it would be impossible for the government to be able to monitor whether there was truly no injection of religion into the secular school subjects. To adhere to the Establishment Clause, the government can have no intimate financial involvement with religiously affiliated institutions.

    Lemon Test

    In making the decision, the court developed the Lemon Test, a three-pronged test to assess whether a law violates the Establishment Clause. According to the Lemon Test, the law must:

    • Have a secular purpose
    • Neither advance nor inhibit religion
    • Not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

    Each prong of the test had been used individually in previous Supreme Court cases. The Lemon Test combined all three and set the precedent for future Supreme Court cases.

    Impact of Lemon v. Kurtzman

    The Lemon Test was initially praised as the best way to assess Establishment Clause cases. However, other judges criticized it or ignored it. Some conservative judges said it was too restrictive and that government should be more accommodating of religion, while others said things like "excessive entanglement" were impossible to define.

    In 1992, the Supreme Court decided to ignore the Lemon Test to make a decision about a school that had invited a rabbi to provide a prayer at a public school (Lee v. Weisman, 1992). They ruled against the school, saying the government had no business composing prayers that other people had to recite at school. However, they said that they didn't feel it was necessary to run it through the Lemon Test.

    While the Supreme Court prioritized the separation between church and state over religious accommodation in Lemon v. Kurtzman, they went a different direction a few decades later in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). In a close (5-4) decision, they decided that publicly funded school vouchers could be used to send students to religiously affiliated schools.

    The most recent blow to the Lemon Test came in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022). The case centered around a coach at a public school who prayed with the team before and after games. The school asked him to stop because they didn't want to risk violating the Establishment Clause, while Kennedy argued that they were violating his right to Freedom of Speech. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor and threw out the Lemon Test, saying that courts should look at "historical practices and understandings" instead.

    Lemon v. Kurtzman - Key takeaways

    • Lemon v. Kurtzman is a Supreme Court case that centers around whether state funding can be used to help religiously affiliated schools.
    • The case falls under Freedom of Religion - specifically, the Establishment Clause.
    • Taxpayers argued that they didn't want their money being used to fund religious schools.
    • The Supreme Court ruled that funding the schools with taxpayer money violated the Establishment Test.
    • They created the Lemon Test, which assesses whether government actions violate the Establishment Clause. While the Lemon Test was considered the most important and concise way to make a ruling, over the years it has been criticized and thrown out.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Lemon v Kurtzman

    What was Lemon v Kurtzman?

    Lemon v. Kurtzman was a landmark Supreme Court decision that prohibited state governments from providing taxpayer funding to religiously affiliated schools.

    What happened in Lemon v Kurtzman?

    Pennsylvania and Rhode Island passed laws that allowed state funding to be used for teachers' salaries and classroom materials in religiously affiliated schools. The Supreme Court ruled that the laws violated the Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state.

    Who won Lemon v Kurtzman? 

    The group of taxpayers and parents who brought the case to the Supreme Court because they didn't want their money going to religious schools won the case.

    Why is Lemon v Kurtzman important?

    Lemon v. Kurtzman is important because it showed that government funding couldn't be used for religious schools and because it created the Lemon Test, which was used for subsequent cases.

    What did Lemon v Kurtzman establish?

    Lemon v. Kurtzman established that using government funding for religious schools violated the Establishment Clause and the separation between church and state. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why was the Establishment Clause the basis for Lemon v. Kurtzman?

    The Establishment Clause says that:

    Along with the Establishment Clause, what other clause makes up Freedom of Religion?

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