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James Graves

Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971)

Fact(s): In 1968, the Pennsylvania Nonpublic Elementary and Secondary Education Act allowed
for the provision of financial aid to private schools for teacher salaries, textbooks, and
instructional materials. The Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act also provided private school
teachers with a 15% salary supplement. Both Pennsylvania and Rhode Island statutes made
financial aid available to church-related educational institutions. A group of taxpayers and
religious organizations filed suit in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the aid provided for
these religious schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Issue(s): Do state statutory laws violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment when
providing financial support in the form of teacher salaries, supplementary salaries, textbooks, or
instructional materials for secular subjects being taught in religious schools?

Ruling: In an 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that both the Pennsylvania and Rhode
Island statutory laws violated the Establishment Clause because it created “excessive
entanglement" between the government and religious affairs. Chief Justice Burger outlined a
three-pronged test, now referred to as the “Lemon test,” to be used when determining the
constitutionality of legislation. The following questions must be asked: (1) Does the activity
have a clear secular (educational, ceremonial, or non-religious) purpose? (2) Does the activity
establish religion or interfere with the free exercise of religion? (3) Does the activity create
“excessive entanglement” between the government and religion? If any one of the prongs is
violated, the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s actions are in violation of the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Rationale: The Supreme Court found that the religious school systems in Pennsylvania and
Rhode Island were “an integral part of the religious mission of the Catholic Church." Both
Pennsylvania and Rhode Island’s programs required each state to oversee and audit the financial
affairs of the religious schools. The Court decided that the necessary state surveillance of the
parochial schools created an “excessive entanglement” between the government and religious
affairs, thus violating the third prong of the Lemon test and the Establishment Clause. The
Supreme Court further found that the statutory laws of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island also
created a potential for political divisiveness regarding legislation involving the support of
religious schools.

Brief Analysis and Conclusion: The Supreme Court Case, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), provides
administrators with a three-prong standard when handling Establishment Clause issues in public
schools. As an administrator, I must ensure that any decisions I make on school policies (e.g.,
student prayer, in-school devotional activities, student-run religious groups, Bible reading,
school holidays, etc.) meet all of the requirements of the Lemon test. By applying a consistent
analysis of each Establishment Clause issue I am confronted with, I will protect students’ rights
to the freedom and exercise of religion. Overall, the Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) case has served
as a landmark decision in the separation of church and state, ensuring that public schools
maintain a position of neutrality when dealing with all matters of religion.