Magazine article The Christian Century

Scrap the 'Lemon Test,' Says Southern Baptists

Magazine article The Christian Century

Scrap the 'Lemon Test,' Says Southern Baptists

Article excerpt

The social-action agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, is calling on the U. S. Supreme Court to scrap the "Lemon test," a yardstick used to judge the constitutionality of laws defining the relationship of church and state. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the 15-million-member denomination's Christian Life Commission charged that the two-decade-old Lemon test has fostered secularism as well as hostility toward religion rather than the neutrality advocated by the nation's founders.

The commission's call for abandoning Lemon is contained in a brief filed in a New York case, Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet. That case involves the creation of a special public school district for Hasidic Jews, which would enable students with special-education needs to receive public funds while attending a Hasidic school. Lower courts have held that the creation of a special district would violate the Constitution's establishment clause barring special privileges that advance particular religious groups.

In calling for an end to the three-part Lemon test, adopted by the Supreme Court in a 1971 ruling, the Southern Baptist agency urged a new test based on the principle of accommodating religion and promoting what it called "benevolent neutrality" on the part of the government toward religion.

The Lemon test says that, in order to pass constitutional muster, a government law or activity must have a secular purpose, must not advance or inhibit religion and must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion. The "very formulation of the Lemon test seems to obscure the value of religious liberty," the SBC agency declared in its brief. "By asking the threshold question whether a religious accommodation has a secular purpose and secular effects, the Lemon test has virtually predetermined the outcome against religion," the brief argued. "Thus, the test promotes secularism, not religious liberty."

Some justices on the nine-member high court have expressed frustration with and opposition to the Lemon test in a series of recent church-state decisions. But they have not yet been able to gain the necessary five-justice majority to do away with it. In the Kiryas Joel case, the Christian Life Commission said, the court is "presented with a compelling opportunity to root out the malevolent secularism which has poisoned the Lemon progeny, to replace it with benevolent neutrality and thereby to restore an establishment clause doctrine which will promote religious liberty rather than obliterate it. …

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