Russell and Duenes

Public Schools and the Lemon Test

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In the case of Roberts v. Madigan, 921 F. 2d at 1056 (10th Cir. 1990), the court held that a public elementary school teacher violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) because the teacher had two Christian books amongst the 230-plus books in his classroom and because he read his Bible silently during his class’s 15-minute silent reading period. The teacher’s principal said that the teacher’s Bible reading was a violation of the “separation of church and state,” id. at 1049, and she prohibited him from so much as getting his Bible out of his desk during school hours. Id. The court, while admitting that “[t]he proper relationship between religion and the state under the Establishment Clause is difficult to determine,” id. at 1053, and that “[n]owhere has the proper line of demarcation been more difficult to define than in our nation’s public schools,” id., still held that mere silent Bible reading without any overt proselytizing or religious encouragement constituted a violation of the law. Id. at 1049.

To determine whether the teacher violated the Constitution, the court applied the “Lemon Test” in this situation. Id. at 1053; see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13 (1971). There are three elements to the Lemon Test: “First, state action must have a secular purpose. Second, the primary effect of any state action must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. Finally, state action must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.” Id. at 1053. Under this test, the court said that the school had a secular purpose for banning the teacher’s Bible reading, namely, “to prevent [the teacher] from violating the Establishment Clause.” Id. at 1054. Further, the court held that the school did not “disapprove of Christianity,” but merely kept the teacher from teaching Christianity by his silent Bible reading. Id. at 1055-56. Because the teacher “chose to keep his Bible on his desk continuously and read it frequently, [the principal] feared that [the teacher] was setting a Christian tone in his classroom.” Id. at 1056. Thus, “the school district acted for the valid purpose of preventing him from promoting Christianity in a public school.” Id. at 1059. The Lemon Test was therefore satisfied.

This summary of the above case, by itself, should send Christian parents to their children’s public school’s registrar’s office to withdraw their children, but even in less egregious cases, the so-called “Lemon Test” may govern the ways that public schools handle religious expression; though of course it is not the only “test” for religious expression the courts use. Yet let’s consider the Lemon Test one element at a time.

Under the Lemon Test, a public school must clear the first hurdle by making sure that any and all of its actions “have a secular purpose.” What goes unacknowledged by this assertion is that baptizing “secular purposes” is doing the very thing that the Establishment Clause prohibits, namely, establishing a religion. To argue this is not some semantical gamesmanship. Secular agnosticism and/ or secular pluralism, which is what the Lemon Test as applied to government schools invokes, is a kind of religion, for like all religions, it presupposes things about God, about the nature of reality, about the legitimacy of authority, about the destiny of humankind, and about freedom. Further, secular agnosticism is not without de facto religious ceremonies (e.g., diversity celebrations, to give but one example) or de facto high priests (e.g., certain public school teachers and university professors, social commentators, or political officials). Clearly, secularism also retains authorities who – religious magistrate-like – have the power to enforce conformity to secularism’s religious axioms, such as principals, backed by the force of law, who are able to compel elementary school teachers to keep their Bibles in their desk drawers lest they “teach Christianity.”

People object to this line of thinking because they assume that “religion” must go under the name of “religion.” Yet one need only consider that religiosity has to do with worldviews, and secularism is a worldview, as I have shown in many previous posts. Worldviews are inherently religious, for as I said, they all presuppose things about God, perhaps even presupposing that God does not exist. A secular atheist or agnostic cannot be exempted from the world of “religion” simply because he or she disdains the label and claims no God or gods.

It is long past time that Christians begin not only acknowledging the religious nature of secularism, but rejecting it as a false god that seeks to capture their children’s allegiance, largely through public education. There’s nothing neutral about the public school’s claim that they “treat all religions the same.” They don’t. Nor could they. And I’m sorry to say, but your 5th grader, and likely your 11th grader as well, is not armed with the truth sufficient to come home to you and report that “today Jesus was again excluded from everything we were taught and denied His sovereign rights as Creator and Lord, just like He is every day in my public school.”



Written by Michael Duenes

November 14, 2012 at 4:59 am

One Response

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  1. Very informative post.

    russell and duenes

    November 14, 2012 at 8:49 am

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