Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a public university’s interest in maintaining a "strict separation of church and state" allows it to bar religious student groups from reserving facilities for worship.


The Court held that the policy was not content-neutral, violating the student group’s First Amendment rights.

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The University of Missouri-Kansas City was founded in 1929, the university has an enrollment of approximately 14,000 students. The school allows over 100 recognized non-religious student groups to meet on its campus. All students pay a $41 activity fee (1978-1979) per semester to support this privilege. UMKC is a part of the University of Missouri system, which is governed by the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri. Defendant Gary E. Widmar is a member of the Board of Curators. Cornerstone is a fundamentalist evangelical Christian student-led organization. The group is registered with the university and met on campus from 1973 to 1977. Plaintiffs were all active members of the organization at the time this action was first filed. The parties disagree about whether allowing Cornerstone to have access to university facilities would be a government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Importance of Case

The Court ruled that the university's exclusionary policy violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause because of the policy's content-specific nature. In order to justify a content-specific regulation of speech, the university must show that the regulation is intended to promote a compelling state interest. Additionally, that interest must be achieved through a narrowly tailored policy. The Court determined that the state interest asserted by the university — achieving greater separation of church and state than is already ensured under the Establishment Clause — was limited by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, and was thus not a valid compelling state interest.

In order to determine if the university's exclusion of Cornerstone violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court utilized the 3-pronged test of Lemon v. Kurtzman. Under this test 1) the government policy must have a secular legal purpose 2) the policy's principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances or inhibits religion and 3) the policy must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. The Court was not persuaded by the university's argument that the establishment of a religious forum would have the primary effect of advancing religion. To the contrary, the court determined that opening a public forum to all forms of discourse was an inherently neutral action by the university. The fact that a religious organization might benefit from equal access to university facilities was an incidental benefit at best.

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