In Widmar v. Vincent (1981), the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a state university regulation that prohibited the use of campus facilities by religious student groups. The Court rejected the university’s contention that it could not provide facilities to religious groups without offering prohibited support to religion, holding that such a regulation violated the students’ rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. Widmar stands out as significant, because it ensured that religious groups would have the same level of access to public facilities as nonreligious groups in both higher education and K–12 schools.
Facts of the Case
From 1973 to 1977, Cornerstone, an organization of evangelical Christian students at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, conducted group meetings in classrooms and the student center on campus. Cornerstone was just one of more than 100 officially recognized student organizations on campus; university officials routinely allowed all such groups to meet in its buildings. Moreover, students were assessed a student activity fee of $41 per semester in order to help offset the cost to the university. Cornerstone meetings included prayer, hymns, and religious discussions. While Cornerstone’s active membership consisted of about 20 students, its meetings, which were open to the public, sometimes attracted up to 125 people. In 1977 university officials refused to grant Cornerstone permission to continue using the rooms, citing a regulation that barred the use of campus facilities for religious worship.
The dispute arose because the university’s board of curators had adopted the regulation in question in 1972, based on its belief that the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion required that the university prohibit religious worship in state facilities. Even so, the regulation permitted prayer at public functions on university grounds and allowed religious groups to continue using school chapels. However, there was no chapel at the Kansas City campus. The nearest University of Missouri chapel was at the Columbia campus, approximately 125 miles away. Without access to university facilities, Cornerstone members were obligated to move their meetings off campus to rooms which were, in their view, inconvenient and uncomfortable.
Eleven student members of Cornerstone filed suit, challenging the regulation as a violation of their rights to free exercise of religion, equal protection, and freedom of speech. A federal trial court in Missouri found that the university had never knowingly allowed any religious group access to its facilities. In granting the university’s motion for summary judgment, the court was of the opinion that the regulation was not merely permitted, but was, in fact, required by the Establishment Clause. The Eighth Circuit reversed in favor of Cornerstone on the basis that the university’s regulation was content-based discrimination against religious speech with no compelling justification. The court explained that the Establishment Clause did not forbid a policy of equal access to university property by all student groups. When university officials were dissatisfied with the outcome, the Supreme Court agreed to hear their appeal.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In Widmar, the Supreme Court, in an eight-to-one judgment authored by Justice Powell, affirmed in favor of Cornerstone. The Court reasoned that university officials violated the fundamental principle that state regulation of speech should be content-neutral when they sought to enforce the exclusionary policy. Insofar as the state, through university officials, created a limited public forum for student speech, the Court noted that it was required to show that a policy that discriminated against religious groups was narrowly drawn to achieve a compelling state interest. While the state’s interest in fulfilling its obligations under the Establishment Clause was compelling, the Court determined that the university policy went further than the First Amendment required.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that an alternative policy that allowed religious groups to meet in university buildings would not have violated the Establishment Cause under the threepronged test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The Lemon test was developed in the context of K–12 education but has been widely applied in disputes involving religion. In this regard, the Court added that both the trial court and the Eighth Circuit agreed that an open forum policy that allowed religious groups to meet would satisfy two of the three prongs of the Lemon test. According to the Court, such a policy would have had a secular purpose (thus meeting the first prong of the Lemon test) and would have avoided excessive government entanglement with religion (satisfying the second prong). On the question of the remaining prong of the test, the Court was satisfied that absent evidence showing that religious groups would have dominated the university’s open forum, providing equal access to Cornerstone would not have had the primary effect of advancing religion. The Court observed that under these circumstances, university officials could not have been seen as endorsing religious speech, because they would merely have been providing the same benefit to Cornerstone that they provided to nonreligious groups.
Rounding out its analysis, the Supreme Court decided that the state’s interest in creating a greater separation of church and state than was required by the Establishment Clause was not sufficiently compelling to justify the violation of the students’ rights to free exercise of religion and free speech. The Court specified that university officials, having established a limited public forum for speech, could deny a group access only if it or its members proposed to use the forum for a purpose that was inconsistent with the purpose for which the forum was created. The Court thus concluded that allowing access to religious groups would not be inconsistent with a forum created to allow students to freely exchange ideas.
Justice Stevens concurred in the Court’s judgment but authored a separate opinion, because he thought that the majority’s rationale may have threatened academic freedom.
In the sole dissent, Justice White rejected what he viewed as the majority’s assertion that the Free Speech Clause could be applied to student meetings that amounted to religious worship. From his perspective, the university could not treat religious worship the same as it treated nonreligious speech, because the Court had already held, in cases such as Engel v. Vitale (1962), which struck down prayer in K–12 public schools, that the Establishment Clause placed limits on government promotion of religion. White further maintained that the actual burden that university officials imposed on Cornerstone and its members was minimal, because they were required only to move a few blocks from their former meeting site. In the absence of a free speech violation, White posited that public officials needed only to assert a permissible state end in order to withstand a constitutional challenge and that university administrators satisfied this requirement with their claim that they wished to avoid an appearance of unconstitutionally supporting religion.
See also equal protection analysis; free speech and expression rights of students; religious activities on campus
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981).