Widmar v. Vincent
454 U.S. 263 (1981)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981)

Widmar v. Vincent

No. 80-689

Argued October 6, 1981

Decided December 8, 1981

454 U.S. 263

Syllabus

The University of Missouri at Kansas City, a state university, makes its facilities generally available for the activities of registered student groups. A registered student religious group that had previously received permission to conduct its meetings in University facilities was informed that it could no longer do so because of a University regulation prohibiting the use of University buildings or grounds "for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching." Members of the group then brought suit in Federal District Court, alleging that the regulation violated, inter alia, their rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The District Court upheld the regulation as being not only justified, but required, by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Court of Appeals reversed, viewing the regulation as a content-based discrimination against religious speech, for which it could find no compelling justification, and holding that the Establishment Clause does not bar a policy of equal access, in which facilities are open to groups and speakers of all kinds.

Held: The University's exclusionary policy violates the fundamental principle that a state regulation of speech should be content-neutral. Pp. 454 U. S. 267-277.

(a) Having created a forum generally open for use by student groups, the University, in order to justify discriminatory exclusion from such forum based on the religious content of a group's intended speech, must satisfy the standard of review appropriate to content-based exclusions; i.e., it must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest, and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. Pp. 454 U. S. 267-270.

(b) Although the University's interest in complying with its constitutional obligations under the Establishment Clause may be characterized as compelling, an "equal access" policy would not be incompatible with that Clause. A policy will not offend the Establishment Clause if it can pass the following three-pronged test: (1) It has a secular legislative purpose; (2) its principal or primary effect would be neither to advance nor to inhibit religion; and (3) it does not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion." Here, it is conceded that an "equal access"

Page 454 U. S. 264

policy would meet the first and third prongs of the test. In the context of this case and in the absence of any evidence that religious groups will dominate the University's forum, the advancement of religion would not be the forum's "primary effect." An "equal access" policy would therefore satisfy the test's second prong as well. Pp. 454 U. S. 270-275.

(c) The State's interest in achieving greater separation of church and State than is already ensured under the Establishment Clause is not sufficiently "compelling" to justify content-based discrimination against religious speech of the student group in question. Pp. 454 U. S. 275-276.

635 F.2d 1310, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 454 U. S. 277. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 454 U. S. 282.

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