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Law School Case Brief

Widmar v. Vincent - 454 U.S. 263, 102 S. Ct. 269 (1981)


Under the standard of review for content-based exclusions, one must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.


The University of Missouri at Kansas City, a state university, which routinely provided university facilities for meetings of registered student organizations, excluded from the facilities “Cornerstone”, a student group desiring to use them for religious worship and religious discussion. The exclusion was based on a university regulation prohibiting the use of buildings or grounds for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching. Several students who were members of Cornerstone brought suit against the university challenging the regulation in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri, alleging that the university's discrimination against religious activity and discussion violated their rights to free exercise of religion, equal protection, and freedom of speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Federal Constitution. The district court upheld the challenged regulation, holding that the regulation was required by the Establishment Clause of the federal Constitution. The district court reasoned that the state could not provide facilities for religious use without giving prohibited support to an institution of religion and rejected the argument that the university could not discriminate against religious speech on the basis of its content. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed, the court viewing the university regulation as a content-based discrimination against religious speech for which there was no compelling justification, and holding that the Establishment Clause did not bar a policy of equal access in which facilities were open to groups and speakers of all kinds.


Was the university’s regulation a content-based discrimination against religious speech?




The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. The Court held that the state university's exclusionary policy violated the fundamental principle that a state regulation of speech should be content-neutral. By creating a discriminatory exclusion from a public forum based on the religious content of a group's intended speech, the university was required to show that its regulation was necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it was narrowly drawn to achieve that end. According to the Court, while the university's interest in complying with its constitutional obligations could be characterized as compelling, a policy permitting "equal access" to the religious group would not necessarily have been incompatible with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in view of the fact that such policy would have a secular purpose, would avoid entanglement with religion, and would not have the primary effect of advancing religion, in the absence of evidence that religion would not dominate an open forum. The Court concluded that the state's asserted interest in achieving greater separation of church and state than is already ensured under the Establishment Clause is limited by both the Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment and is insufficiently compelling to justify content-based discrimination against the student group's religious speech.

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