Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971: Summary, Decision & Significance

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  • 0:01 Summary & Central Issue
  • 0:52 The Situation
  • 1:23 Previous Cases
  • 2:03 The Decision
  • 3:24 Significance
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the famous ''Lemon v. Kurtzman'' case of 1971. You'll learn not just what it was about and its decision, but also but kind of significance this case and its decision had. From there, you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Summary & Central Issue

In the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971, the Supreme Court had to decide if states could give money to religious schools to hire teachers even if it was specified that the teachers couldn't teach religion. The very first amendment in the Constitution deals with freedom of religion. The framers stated that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise there-of.'

This law established the American principle of separation of church and state. But what is the boundary between religion and state? For one, the phrase doesn't exclude any interaction with the state, so it certainly isn't a firm line dividing the church and the government. But when do we know when the boundary line between church and state has been crossed?

This was the central issue before the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman. What should be the line between church and state?

The Situation

Lemon v. Kurtzman, which originated in Pennsylvania, was heard along with a similar case, Early v. Di Censo, which originated in Rhode Island. In both cases, the local governments had created programs to help religious schools. Such 'parochiaid' programs used taxpayer money to pay teachers. The teachers, however, could not teach the subject of religion within those schools. So, was this a violation of the Constitution? Alton Lemon, a local tax payer, challenged the program as violating the Constitution's separation of church and state.

Previous Cases

Prior to Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court had weighed in on the issue in two cases. First, in Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the court ruled that the State of New Jersey could reimburse parents for transportation to parochial schools because it helped parents, not the parochial schools.

Likewise, in Board of Education of Central School District No. 1 v. Allen, the court ruled that school boards could lend textbooks to parochial schools because it helped parents and not the organization.

However, neither case was able to establish a firm acceptable boundary for when the state has become too involved with religion. Lemon v. Kurtzman sought to fix that.

The Decision

The court ruled 8-0 against the Pennsylvania and Rhode Island parochiaid programs. The court found that the government was too involved with religion in this case, a violation of the Constitution.

Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the following:

'Both statutes are unconstitutional under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as the cumulative impact of the entire relationship arising under the statutes involves excessive entanglement between government and religion.'

More importantly, the court established a 3-part test to determine if a program was within the boundaries of the Constitution. This test is called the Lemon Test. First, for a government program to be Constitutional, the program has to be secular or non-religious. Second, the program can't advance or inhibit religion. Third, the program can't create excessive or unnecessary intertwining of government with religion.

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