1 minute read

Grand Rapids School District v. Ball

Taking The Lemon Test

Local taxpayers decided to challenge the constitutionality of spending public funds on programs that were offered within religious schools. Both the district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the programs violated the First Amendment. Grand Rapids School District decided to take the case to the Supreme Court.

After what was apparently a bitter debate, the Court ruled 5-4 that the Community Education program violated the First Amendment, and 7-2 that the Shared Time program was in violation. Justice Brennan wrote the majority opinion, which laid out a sweeping prohibition against programs like the ones in Grand Rapids.

Brennan explained that he had been guided by a three-part test laid out in an earlier decision, Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The so-called "Lemon test" used three criterion to evaluate each case: 1) whether the law providing public funds to religious schools had a secular (nonreligious) purpose in mind; 2) whether the law either advanced or inhibited religion; and 3) whether the law lead to "an excessive government entanglement with religion."

Brennan believed that Grand Rapids had passed the first part of the Lemon test. Clearly, the purpose of the law funding Shared Time and Community Education had been to help some students supplement their education. No religious purpose was intended. The question was with the second part of the Lemon test, and whether a religious purpose had been achieved, even if the school district had not intended it.

Yes, answered Justice Brennan:

We do not question that the religious school teachers employed by the Community Education program will attempt in good faith to perform their secular mission conscientiously. Nonetheless, there is a substantial risk that the religious message they are expected to convey during the regular school day will infuse the supposedly secular classes . . . Shared Time instructors are teaching academic subjects in religious schools in courses virtually indistinguishable from the other courses offered during the regular religious day. Teachers in such an atmosphere may well subtly (or overtly) conform their instruction to the environment in which they teach, while students will perceive the instruction in the context of the dominantly religious message of the institution.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Grand Rapids School District v. Ball - Significance, Separating Public And Religious Education, Taking The Lemon Test, The End Of A Symbolic Union