Lemon Test

The Lemon Test is a test courts use to determine whether governmental action violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. For example, the Lemon Test is a court’s tool used to rule on whether the government tried to prohibit the freedom of religious expression.

Courts can also use the Test to determine whether the government attempted to remove the separation of church and state. To explore this concept, consider the following lemon test definition.

Definition of Lemon Test


  1. A test courts use to determine whether the government violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, specifically the Establishment Clause.


December 15, 1791

What is the Lemon Test Meaning?

This Test is a test the courts use to determine whether the government violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. For example, the Lemon Test decides whether the government either prohibited the freedom to express one’s religion, or promoted religion where it does not belong, like in a public school.

There are three prongs to this test; specifically, the government has violated the Constitution unless its actions meet the following examples of Lemon Test criteria:

  • Have a secular, or non-religious, purpose
  • Do not advance or inhibit a religion
  • Do not promote an extreme entanglement with religion on the government’s part

Evolution of the Lemon Test

The guideline test started out as an unquestionable, influential legal doctrine when it came to be in the matter of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971 (more on that later). It was this case that encouraged the U.S. Supreme Court to establish the three prongs by which they would measure the government’s actions in cases involving religion. Using this, they nailed down the Lemon Test meaning, and the Court now had a process by which they could determine if the government was becoming overly involved in the establishment or prohibition of religion.


However, some justices have come to criticize the Test because they believe the test incorrectly influences the decisions other justices have made. As an example of the Lemon Test, in the 1973 case, the Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, the Court ruled that a New York program providing tax credits and grants failed the second prong of the Test. The argument was that the New York program reduced expenses for religious schools too which, in effect, promoted religion.

Dissenting justices to the opinion, however, believed that not all the grants and credits promoted religion because some went not to the school, but to the parents of the students.

This decision went on to encourage future justices to uphold programs that provided aid to religious schools indirectly, which is why many have taken on the Test. Those against it argue that it is not a foolproof method of guaranteeing the government stays out of religious affairs because, if they want to, they’ll find a way around it.

Lemon Test Effect on the Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing any kind of religion. Therefore, the Lemon Test Effect on the Establishment Clause prevents Congress, or any form of government for that matter, from becoming too involved in religion. The main Lemon Test Effect on the Establishment Clause is that it keeps the government in check.

The problem is that, depending on how the courts interpret the Test, the Lemon Test Effect on the Establishment Clause may not be as effective as it may appear to be. There are prior examples of the Lemon Test being heard by the Supreme Court. Each of these rulings prohibited the government from getting too involved in certain public school situations, thereby limiting the government’s ability to enforce the separation of church and state.

Challenge to the Lemon Test

One of many examples of Lemon Test challenges occurred in February of 2014, when the American Humanist Association (“AHA”) sued the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. This case would ultimately end in a challenge to the Test. Specifically, the complaint challenged the constitutionality of the gigantic Christian cross the latter had funded and erected.

When the case reached the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court ruled in AHA’s favor, paving the way to the ultimate challenge to the Test. The court held that, as examples of the Lemon Test go, the cross failed two prongs:

  • The cross was unconstitutional in its promotion of Christianity.
  • The cross promotes the government’s excessive entanglement with religion.

The final challenge to the Test came in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case in 2018. As of this writing, the Court had not yet made its decision, but the AHA remained hopeful that the Supreme Court might set a new standard for similar situations in the future. In other words, there may be many more examples of Lemon Test challenges coming in future cases.

The Lemon Test Example that Started It All

Perhaps the best example of the Lemon Test is the case that originated the concept: Lemon v. Kurtzman. In the late 1960s, both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania passed laws providing funding to nonpublic schools to allow them to use materials and teach subjects that were the same as those taught and used in public schools. The only caveat was that they were not to teach religious classes. While these Lemon Test examples, the laws appeared to be secular on their face, most of the schools that benefited from this additional funding were actually private religious schools.

Lemon Test Examples in State Lawsuit

On the Pennsylvania side of things, Alton Lemon filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of his son, who attended public school. The district court, however, ruled against him. In Rhode Island, the courts found the law to be unconstitutional. When both cases reached the appellate court, the United States Supreme Court decided to combine them and make one decision to cover both cases.

Supreme Court Decision

In an 8 : 1 vote in the Rhode Island case, and a unanimous vote in the Pennsylvania case, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the states’ laws were unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Burger argued that the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment suggested a broader reading supporting the Constitution forbidding laws that encourage the establishment of a state religion.

Said the Court:

“The merit and benefits of these schools, however, are not the issue before us in these cases. The sole question is whether state aid to these schools can be squared with the dictates of the Religion Clauses. Under our system, the choice has been made that government is to be entirely excluded from the area of religious instruction, and churches excluded from the affairs of government.

The Constitution decrees that religion must be a private matter for the individual, the family, and the institutions of private choice, and that, while some involvement and entanglement are inevitable, lines must be drawn.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.