30 years ago today, high court backed student Christian group

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thirty years ago today — on Dec. 8, 1981 — the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public university cannot discriminate against student religious groups based on the basis of the content of their expression. The Court decided in Widmar v. Vincent that a University of Missouri at Kansas City policy flagrantly violated fundamental First Amendment principles.

From 1973 to 1977, university officials allowed a registered student group named Cornerstone — an organization of evangelical Christian students from different denominations — to conduct its meetings in university buildings.  However, in 1977, the university changed its policy and denied Cornerstone building access, citing an earlier regulation adopted by UMKC’s board of curators in 1972. That regulation said university facilities could not be used “for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.”

Eleven university students, all Cornerstone members, sued in federal court, contending that the university had discriminated against religious groups and violated their First Amendment rights under the free-speech and religious free-exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

A federal district court ruled in 1979 in favor of the university, finding that its policy excluding religious groups was mandated by the establishment clause — the part of the First Amendment that provides for separation between church and state. The district court rejected the argument that the ban on religious worship services infringed on freedom of speech, writing that “speech with religious content cannot be treated the same as any other form of speech. To do so would make a nullity of both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the first amendment.”

On appeal, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court in 1980, finding that the university’s policy discriminated against religious speech.

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.”

The university had argued that if it allowed student religious groups to hold meetings that included religious worship, then it would violate the establishment clause because allowing such meetings would have a primary effect of advancing religion.

However, Powell reasoned that university facilities were a type of public forum open to all types of student expression, religious and nonreligious. He 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.

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.

Only Justice Byron White dissented in the case, emphasizing a view of strict separation between church and state.

Justices who often disagreed on a variety of constitutional issues came together to join the same opinion.  Chief Justice Warren Burger and William H. Rehnquist often did not see eye-to-eye with Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan. But all four signed on to Powell’s majority opinion.

In 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which extended the spirit of the Court’s holding in Widmar v. Vincent to public secondary schools. That law prohibits public school officials from discriminating against student groups on the basis of their religious or philosophical viewpoints.

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