Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)

The Lemon case considered whether a Pennsylvania law reimbursing private religious schools with state funds for textbooks, and teacher salaries for private, religious schools, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In an 8-to-0 decision, the Court set out a three-pronged test for the constitutionality of a statute, by which a statute is constitutional if: (1) it has a primarily secular purpose; (2) its principal effect neither aids nor inhibits religion; and (3) government and religion are not excessively entangled. On this basis, the Court struck down the Pennsylvania law as in violation of the Establishment Clause, finding that the statute constituted an excessive government entanglement with religion. The Court wrote that a “practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause,” must not “advance [or] inhibit religion in its principal or primary effect.”

Lemon has been the subject of criticism for over 20 years on the grounds that it purportedly is hostile to government assistance to religious entities. Nevertheless, the decision survives and appears safe from being overruled, in major part because in practice it has not proven to be a serious barrier. States and municipalities have found it relatively easy to structure any aid programs to fit within the contours of the Lemon test, with the approval of the Court.