Executive Director's Corner
by Matt Cherry
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 3.
[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
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
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
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:
- it must have a secular legislative purpose
- its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion
- it must not foster excessive entanglement with religion.