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30 Years Later, Don't Forget Widmar

October 17, 2017

by David Hacker

Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Widmar v. Vincent.  Perhaps you've never heard of this case, or perhaps you don't really care.  But you should.  For Widmar is the cornerstone of modern religious liberty jurisprudence.

In the 1970s a small, but thriving group of Christian students from various denominational backgrounds met regularly on the campus of the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  They called their group, Cornerstone.  The students met in the University's student center and other facilities to pray, sing hymns, read scripture, share personal testimonies, and discuss the Bible.

But in 1977, the University decided that Cornerstone could no longer meet in its facilities.  The University said that it had a regulation that prohibited the use of its buildings or grounds for religious worship or religious teaching.  I suspect that universities across the country had been doing this sort of thing for years.  There was, and still is, a mistaken understanding of the First Amendment as it applies to student speech on campus, particularly the application of the Establishment Clause, and university administrators, whether in good faith or not, regularly oust Christian student groups for fear of violating it.  But rather than capitulate and move their meetings off campus, the students in Cornerstone drew a line in the sand and said, "No more."  We owe them a debt of gratitude.

Eleven students filed a lawsuit against the University, alleging that its policy of excluding religious worship and teaching from University buildings violated the First Amendment.  I can imagine they asked their lawyers many of the same questions ADF clients ask me:  Will this have an effect on my degree?  Will the university punish me for suing it?  What will I tell my friends?  These are valid questions, but it seems they already answered the most important question, "why should I do this?"  The eleven students must have known that the ability of their group to survive and share God's Word depended on it reaching students on campus.  And the only way to reach students on campus was to be on campus.

The students road to justice, however, was not paved smoothly.  The federal trial court ruled against them and held that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment not only justified, but required the University's exclusionary policy.  Our nation's misapprehension of the Establishment Clause runs deep.

A federal court of appeals reversed that ruling and held that the University's policy of banning worship was a content-based regulation of speech for which there was no compelling justification.  It also ruled that the Establishment Clause does not bar religious speakers from accessing a publicly open facility on equal terms with all other speakers.

The University, not satisfied with this result, asked the Supreme Court to take the case.  And against all the odds, it did.  The case was argued the day before my second birthday in October 1981, and the Court handed down its decision two months and two days later, December 8, 1981, the day after the fortieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

In Widmar, the Court held that the University's policy of excluding religious worship and religious teaching from generally open university facilities discriminated against speech based on its religious content.  In other words, if the University opened its facilities for basically any type of speech, it could not exclude religious speakers.   The Court also held that the government does not violate the Establishment Clause by opening its facilities neutrally to private expression.

When the decision came down, Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times that the "decision is significant . . . in that it provides what may be the Court's clearest explanation so far of how religious observance fits within the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment."  Religion, it seemed at the time, would not be relegated to second-class status.

Widmar paved the way for many of the Court's subsequent religious speech cases involving access to public school facilities, student activity fee funding, and church use of public facilities.  It even set the legal table for Congress to later enact the Equal Access Act, which protects the ability of religious student clubs to meet on public school property.  If you were ever in a Christian club at your public school or college or if you have ever attended a church or Bible study that met in a school or public facility, you have Widmar to thank.

Despite Widmar's remarkable impact on religious liberty, some have forgotten it.  Just this week, we told you about the disappointing result in Bronx Household of Faith v. The Board of Education of the City of New York.  The Bronx case, like Widmar, involved a group of Christians who sought to use publicly available school facilities for their Sunday morning gatherings, but who were prohibited from doing so because the city banned worship in its facilities.  For a decade the church litigated whether the city's policy violated the First Amendment, and in June, the federal court of appeals ruled that the city's policy was constitutional.  The result:  an estimated 60 churches will be evicted in February because of this ruling.  Yes, that's right, in direct conflict with the Supreme Court's decision in Widmar, a subordinate federal court excluded Christians from publicly available facilities because of the way in which they communicate their speech - worship.  It seems some people want to forget Widmar, or at least relegate it to a dusty storage room shelf.

But some have not forgotten.  Yesterday, on Widmar's 30th anniversary, many people gathered on the steps of City Hall in New York, including city council members, congregants, and pastors of churches that will be evicted in February.  They rallied to repeal the city's discriminatory policy and to keep churches meeting in city boroughs that desperately need them.

So why shouldn't you forget Widmar?  Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen says it best:

Few principles of the freedom of speech are more foundational or of greater practical importance to religious liberty than the proposition that religious speech is as fully protected as speech on any other subject . . . .

Widmar’s free-speech holding is thus fundamental to the freedom of religion. It is the basis for the right of evangelism: Freedom of religious expression, and the equal status of religious ideas, keep government from suppressing religious discourse and debate. And Widmar’s free-speech principle is closely allied with the freedom to exercise one’s religious convictions in society generally: It is the principle that proclaims the equal status of religious views, religious arguments, religiously motivated actions, religious associations, and religious identity in American public life. Freedom of religion means, at bedrock, the right of religious persons, groups, and ideas to participate fully and equally in the life of the community and in the marketplace of ideas.

So lest we lose the precious freedoms we have, don't forget Widmar.  "Tell your children about it in the years to come, and let your children tell their children. Pass the story down from generation to generation."  (Joel 1:3)


Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

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Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith