Billy Graham’s passing last week has rightfully prompted reflection on the significant impact he had on millions of people across the world, sharing with them the good news of the Gospel.
What you might not know is that in one instance, his evangelism had a significant impact on free speech and religious liberty in this country. This came about back in 1974, when Graham and his evangelistic meetings were at the center of a legal conflict involving Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe that reached the Arizona Supreme Court. Billy Graham’s rallies, called “crusades,” exploded in size quickly after his rally in Los Angeles in 1949. People came in huge numbers. With this surging interest, his staff rented large facilities, mainly stadiums, to accommodate the large crowds coming to hear him preach the Gospel of Christ.
Because state and local governments frequently owned the stadiums Graham leased, it was inevitable that a church-state separation issue would erupt somewhere. And that place was Phoenix.
Graham’s staff negotiated a contract with the Board of Regents of Arizona State University in Tempe to lease Sun Devil Stadium for a week of evangelistic services in May 1974 for the going market rate – which at that time was approximately $40,000. Sun Devil Stadium was one of the largest venues in the Phoenix area at that time. The Arizona State football team played its home football games there, and it hosted the Fiesta Bowl for several decades.
But a local taxpayer, Martin Pratt, objected to a government-owned stadium being used for an overtly religious event. So he filed a lawsuit to stop the Board of Regents from renting the stadium to Billy Graham for his large evangelistic rallies. Pratt claimed that the Arizona Constitution prohibited governmental aid or support for religious worship, so it was unconstitutional for the Board of Regents to permit Billy Graham’s meetings at Sun Devil Stadium.
The case reached the Arizona Supreme Court, where the high court first expressed agreement with the general constitutional principles argued by Mr. Pratt – that the government could not favor religion or support it financially. But ultimately the court ruled that he was taking these principles much too far: “It does not necessarily follow that the framers of the Arizona Constitution intended to entirely prohibit the use by religious groups of public and school property for religious purposes.”
The Arizona Supreme Court then explained how, in the early days of Arizona, many communities were isolated geographically and had only a one-room school house. Many communities conducted school during the day there and other community meetings at night, including religious meetings.
Therefore, because of this historical context, the drafters of the Arizona Constitution would not have written a provision to categorically exclude religious meetings from public schools in all situations. The high court also explained that a “straight commercial transaction” to lease a government facility did not convey government endorsement of religion. Anybody could rent the stadium.
This unanimous decision allowed Billy Graham to preach Christ and salvation to the crowds who came to Sun Devil Stadium in 1974.
This Arizona case is one example of the major legal battles over “equal access” that started in the 1970s and still crop up today. See, for example, ADF’s 20-year battle against New York City’s policy excluding only worship services from meeting in empty public schools during non-school hours.
Although these skirmishes break out from time to time today, the Supreme Court ruled decisively in favor of “equal access” in the 1981 decision of Widmar v. Vincent. It ruled that the government violates the First Amendment when it “discriminate[s] against student groups and speakers based on their desire to use a generally open forum to engage in religious worship and instruction.”
Billy Graham, whom we honor now in his passing, helped to build and fortify this constitutional principle for equal access and freedom of speech for everyone at Sun Devil Stadium.
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Photo of Billy Graham courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.