What Is the Lemon Test Used For?

By Christina Whitaker
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Most Americans have heard of the "separation between church and state." This principle stems from the First Amendment and prohibits the government from either forcing or preventing religious activity. The "Lemon Test" is the test the court applies when a law or governmental action has been challenged as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This three-pronged test was first established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, and a law or government action must pass all three parts of the test to be deemed constitutional.

Establishment Clause Concerns Religion

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." These 10 words are known as the Establishment Clause and apply to state legislatures as well as the federal Congress. This clause prohibits the government from establishing an official religion or favoring one religion over another. The Establishment Clause also prohibits the government from preferring religion over non-religion. The Establishment Clause not only affects the types of laws a government may pass, but also the sort of action governments may take.

First Prong: Non-Religious Purpose

The first prong of the Lemon Test requires that a law have a non-religious, or secular, purpose. This means that the government must not intend to encourage participation in religion. A law that reasonably serves other purposes will likely pass this prong of the test. Consider, for example, a law that provides financial aid to low-income children to attend any private school of their choice, including religious schools. Such a law will probably have the non-religious purpose of ensuring that all children are able to receive a quality education.

Second Prong: Primary Effect

A law that is deemed to have a secular purpose must also pass the "primary effects" prong of the Lemon Test. Under this prong, the court will ask whether the law has the primary effect of promoting or advancing religion. In making this determination, the government will consider several factors. A law that affects a large group of citizens will probably not violate the Establishment Clause. In contrast, a law that only benefits a particular religious group would likely be unconstitutional. Similarly, a law that provides direct benefits to a single religious group will probably have a primary effect of advancing religion. A law that only indirectly benefits religious groups will probably not be viewed as a violation the Establishment Clause.

Third Prong: Government Entanglement

The final question of the Lemon Test asks whether there will be "excessive government entanglement" in carrying out the law or government action. Like prong two of the Lemon Test, there is no clear method of evaluating this question. However, courts are concerned with whether or not a law will require the government to become closely involved with religious groups to enforce the law. For example, a law that requires the government to pay for history textbooks in religious schools will require less oversight than a law that requires teacher salaries in religious schools to be paid.

About the Author

Christina Whitaker began her writing career in 2005 in newspaper journalism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA and a law degree. Her legal experience includes work in Federal Court, and civil and criminal litigation. She also maintains a blog on social, pop-culture and cultural matters.