Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263; 102 S. Ct. 269; 70 L. Ed. 2d 440 (1981)

Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263; 102 S. Ct. 269; 70 L. Ed. 2d 440 (1981)

Facts—The University of Missouri at Kansas City, a state university, generally opened its facilities for the activities of registered student groups. Although a registered religious group named Cornerstone originally sought and received permission to conduct its meetings in university facilities, the university subsequently informed the organization that Cornerstone’s meetings could no longer be held in university buildings. The exclusion was based on a regulation adopted by the Board of Curators that prohibited the use of university buildings or grounds “for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.” Members of Cornerstone alleged that the university’s discrimination against religious activity and discussion violated their rights of free exercise of religion, equal protection, and freedom of speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Question—Can a state university, which makes its facilities generally available for the activities of registered student groups, close its facilities to a registered group desiring to use the facilities for religious worship and religious discussion?


ReasonsJ. Powell (8–1). “With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities.” It is possible—perhaps even foreseeable—that religious groups will benefit from access to university facilities. “But this court has explained that a religious organization’s enjoyment of merely ‘incidental’ benefits does not violate the prohibition against the ‘primary advancement’ of religion.

We are satisfied that any religious benefits of an open forum at UMKC would be ‘incidental’ within the meaning of our cases an open forum in a public university does not confer any imprimatur of state approval on religious sects or practices. . . . The forum is available to a broad class of non-religious as well as religious speakers; there are over 100 recognized student groups at UMKC. The provision of benefits to so broad a spectrum of groups is an important index of secular effect. In the absence of empirical evidence that religious groups will dominate UMKC’s open forum, . . .the advancement of religion would not be the forum’s ‘primary effect.’ . . .The basis for our decision is narrow. Having created a forum generally open to student groups, the university seeks to enforce a content-based exclusion of religious speech. Its exclusionary policy violates the fundamental principle that a state regulation of speech should be content-neutral, and the university is unable to justify this violation under applicable constitutional standards.”

J. White argued in dissent that although a state institution should have the right to accommodate religion, it should not be constitutionally required to do so and that there was “room for state policies that may incidentally burden religion.”

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