Thursday, December 13, 2007

When life gives you Lemons

Once upon a time in the a faraway land called "Pennsylvania", in a faraway time called 1968, there was a legal dispute that ultimately evolved into the U.S. Supreme Court case known as Lemon vs. Kurtzman. At issue was the question of whether or not the Superintendent of Public Instruction could be allowed by the state to reimburse private schools for textbooks, teacher salaries, etc. using public tax money. For example, would the state of Pennsylvania be allowed/obligated to reimburse a Catholic school for its textbook expenses, or would that violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause?

In 1971 the Supreme Court, headed by conservative Nixon appointee Warren E. Burger, struck down the Pennsylvania law and established what is now called the Lemon Test as a shorthand method of examining whether or not a government action may be in violation of the Establishment Clause. In short, it states that in order to be in keeping with the First Amendment, a law must meet three criteria.

1.) It must serve some clear secular purpose.
2.) It must neither advance nor hinder religion.
3.) It must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion.


The Lemon Test has sadly been used only inconsistently by the Court in the intervening years, but it is still worth using by us lay folk who want to examine the goings on of our increasingly theocratic American government. For example, let's use the Lemon Test to look at Tuesday's House Resolution 847. Now, I'll grant that both Congress and the various state legislatures pass all kinds of silly resolutions stating that this, that, or the other is awesome. However, given the current climate of "culture war" and religious fervor going on in the U.S. today, H.R. 847 poses a special threat to the legacy of government secularism that our founders intended. Anyway, on to the test:

1.) Does H.R. 847 serve a clear secular purpose? Hardly. Heck, most of these generic resolutions in support of Christmas or Karate or Ultraman or whatever else hardly serve a clear purpose of any kind. 847 compounds its general meaninglessness with explicit statements in support of Christian Theology.

2.) Does H.R. 847 advance or hinder a religion? Seems like. Numerous conservative sites are already touting it as an endorsement of a Christian America.

3.) Does H.R. 847 excessively entangle the government with religion? Almost certainly. By explicitly stating, for example, the government's gratitude to Jesus for dying for our sins, the government is taking on a priestly tone that is far from consistent with the views of the founders.

So, clearly, H.R. 847 fails the First Amendment test that was first established by a Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court. Yet it's being met with adulation rather than abject horror by most of our populace. The founders would be appalled.

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