Alton Lemon, civil rights and church/state separation activist, passes away.

Alton LemonBy Frederick Sparks

Alton T. Lemon, a civil rights activist who lent his name to a landmark Supreme Court case, died on May 4, 2013 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He was 84

Mr Lemon, who held a degree in mathematics from Morehouse and was friendly with fellow Morehouse alum Martin Luther King, Jr., was the lead named plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which found unconstitutional a 1968 Pennsylvania law authorizing public funds to be used for secular courses at religious school.  The decision later came to be a part of the “Lemon test” used to in cases alleging violations of the Establishment Clause through government support of religion.  The test requires that the Court  “consider whether the challenged government practice has a secular purpose, whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it fosters excessive government entanglement with religion..”   The test was used in the Dover intelligent design case, as well as cases dealing with school prayer.

I studied the Lemon test in law school but do not remember learning much background about the plaintiff involved, or the racial context related to resistance to public school desegregation which was behind the push to shift resources to private religious schools.

Mr Lemon had more recently lamented the erosion of church/state separation: “Separation of church and state is gradually losing ground, I regret to say.”


  1. CaitieCat says

    What a remarkable man – a true loss to the community, who made a brave contribution to helping us be atheist today. My sympathies to his family, and anyone who loved him or was loved by him.

    Thanks for writing about him.

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