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Executive Director's Corner

by Matt Cherry

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 3.

Celebrating Lemon

[Matt Cherry and African Americans for Humanism director Norm Allen attended a 25th anniversary celebration of the Supreme Court verdict Lemon v. Kurtzman held by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia in July. The guest of honor was plaintiff Alton Lemon. This column is based on the speech he gave at that event.]

Lemon v. Kurtzman produced a crucial advance in the separation of church and state in the United States. By establishing the Lemon Test to ensure the secular nature of legislation, it set a constitutional benchmark for church/state separation. I'm sure most secular humanists appreciate how important this is in the United States today, but would like to highlight the value of the Lemon Test by looking at it from an international perspective.

The separation of church and state is a vital issue across the world. Many countries completely deny their citizens the human right to freedom of religion, belief and conscience. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is a capital offense to be an atheist. In Iran, apostasy is a capital offense - that is, the state may kill someone who does not accept the Islamic beliefs of their forefathers. And as the British humanist Salman Rushdie has learned, the regime in Iran is prepared to extend this murderous intolerance far beyond its own borders.

Unfortunately, such lethal violations of freedom of belief can be seen every day in many other parts of the world. Newspapers are currently reporting the war crimes trial of Bosnian Serbs (orthodox Christians) who tortured and killed Muslims by carving the sign of the cross into their flesh. Other examples are not reported, such as the Buddhist monarch of Bhutan's genocidal campaign against Bhutanese Hindus. And let us not forget that anti-humanist secular regimes, such as the totalitarian government in China and Tibet, can suppress freedom of religion and belief just as viciously as religious governments.

In many other countries the situation is far less extreme, but religion, or usually a particular church or creed, has undue power within the state.

In my own native country, the Church of England is the established church, with many privileges and powers. An example from my own upbringing illustrates the chronic entanglement of church and state in Britain. From the ages of five to eleven, I went to a Church of England public elementary school, where of course I was taught the Bible as truth, had to pray every morning, et cetera. I went to a church school not because my parents were religious - they weren't - but because it was the only state school in the neighborhood. Even after I left the church school and went to a "non-religious" high school, every day still began with a Christian assembly with prayers, hymns and Bible readings.

You may think that such outdated practices reveal that my school days are lost far back in the mists of time, and that such intrusive religious impositions can no longer continue in secular 1990s Britain - where surveys show that less than three percent of the population attends an Anglican church on Sunday and between 30 and 55 per cent do not believe in a god. But in 1988, the law requiring religious assemblies in schools - which had been falling into disuse because of its obvious irrelevance and offensiveness in a multi-faith and increasingly non-religious society - was actually reinforced! The 1988 Education Reform Act compels every state school to have Christian assembly and worship at the start of every day and requires mainly Christian religious education for the "moral instruction" of children.

Such pervasive entanglements of Church and State are common throughout the supposedly secular Western World.

In many other countries religion and state have been constitutionally separated, but that separation is now under threat. For example, the constitutional separation of religion and state in the secular republic of India is now being challenged. Following the general election in May this year, a Hindu chauvinist government came to power, committed to making India a Hindu state to be renamed "Hindustan." The main victims of a Hindu state would be the more-than-200 million Muslims in India, but the Buddhists, Christians, freethinkers, Parsis and other groups in the diverse sub-continent would also become second-class citizens in "Hindustan." And ultimately the Hindu majority would suffer from the strife and uncertainty stirred up by the state's partisan role in religious affairs.

Although the Hinduist government quickly collapsed, the future of secularism in the world's largest democracy remains in question.

Throughout the world the fight for separation of state and religion continues. Sometimes there are advances: such as in Sweden, which has just voted to disestablish the Lutheran state church; and in Ireland where the Catholic church's stranglehold on the state is at last being weakened, and contraception and divorce are now legally permitted. But in other countries, such as Turkey and Mexico, historic secular constitutions are being undermined by politicized religion.

The struggle for separation of church and state most certainly continues in the United States. The USA was the first nation in the world to ensure freedom of and from religion for all its citizens, and its principles of religious liberty remain a beacon to people throughout the world. But, although the constitutional "wall of separation between church and state" was established at the very foundation of the United States, it has required constant vigilance and activism to achieve and maintain separation.

The Lemon Test, enunciated by the Supreme Court 25 years ago, surely provides the clearest and most complete realization of the goal of separating church and state. The Lemon Test exemplifies what is, in my opinion, the fairest, the freest and the healthiest possible arrangement between religion and state. This separation - this freedom of and from religion - is envied throughout the world.

The Lemon Test

The Lemon Test is the Supreme Court standard for judging separation of church and state. The Lemon Test, named after plaintiff Alton Lemon, is a three-pronged test first employed by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Over the last 25 years it has been used by the Supreme Court and many lower courts in deciding church-state separation cases. The Lemon Test states that a law is in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, unless it meets all of these three criteria:

  1. it must have a secular legislative purpose
  2. its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion
  3. it must not foster excessive entanglement with religion.

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This page was last updated 12/15/2003

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