30 Years Later, Supreme Court’s Ruling in ‘Widmar v. Vincent’ Still Key for Religious, and Nonreligious, Expression on Campus

By December 9, 2011

The First Amendment Center’s David L. Hudson Jr. wrote a timely piece yesterday drawing attention to the thirty-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981). 

In that important case, the Court ruled in favor of a religious student organization at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) that sought to hold its meetings in university buildings, a practice the public university had allowed for several years. After the university changed its policy and denied the group, Cornerstone, building access, Cornerstone sued alleging violation of its First Amendment rights. In finding for Cornerstone, the Court struck a significant blow not only for the speech and expressive activities of religious student groups, but for free speech on university campuses as a general matter. 

As Hudson writes, UMKC’s policy reversal came in the form of a regulation stating that university facilities could not be used "for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching." The university argued that this was necessary to avoid a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause-in other words, to maintain a separation of church and state. Thankfully, however, the Supreme Court did not see it that way. Hudson explains:

The university took the case to the high court, which ruled 7-1 in favor of the students and against the university policy. Justice Lewis Powell declared in his majority opinion in Widmar v. Vincent that "UMKC has discriminated against student groups and speakers based on their desire to use a generally open forum to engage in religious worship and discussion." 

Powell noted that there were more than 100 registered student groups and that the university should not selectively deny access to groups because of their religious nature. He viewed the university’s differential treatment of this student religious group as a "content-based exclusion of religious speech."

As for UMKC’s Establishment Clause argument, Justice Powell reasoned that university buildings and facilities were a type of public forum, available for all types of student speech and expressive activities, including both religious and nonreligious expression. The public forum aspect of the opinion is crucial, as its reach goes beyond the immediate facts of the case and students’ religious expression on campus, and extends to the nature of the free exchange of ideas at a public university. Hudson writes:

[Powell] emphasized that "an open forum in a public university does not confer any imprimatur of state approval on religious sects or practices." 

Rather than advance religion, he said, an open-door policy to registered student groups benefits a broad range of students and causes.

It is easy to see why Widmar was, and continues to be, such a crucial precedent. Hudson helpfully summarizes the decision’s import in this way:

The decision is important to First Amendment jurisprudence on several levels. 

1. It established the primacy of the content discrimination tool in free-speech law – that courts should carefully examine to see whether a law is content-based or content-neutral. 

2. It contributed much to the development of the public-forum concept – that when the government opens up its facilities for general use, it does not have unfettered license to discriminate against certain forms of speech. 

3. It emphasized that the establishment clause does not give free license to the government to discriminate against religious expression.

Widmar is a case that we at FIRE, like anyone who advocates for First Amendment rights, certainly appreciate. We cite it in our work quite often, and we therefore think it is wholly appropriate on the decision’s anniversary to reflect on its importance in the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.