Widmar v. Vincent

PETITIONER: Gary E. Widmar
RESPONDENT: Clark Vincent
LOCATION: Haag Hall at University of Missouri – Kansas City

DOCKET NO.: 80-689
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 454 US 263 (1981)
ARGUED: Oct 06, 1981
DECIDED: Dec 08, 1981
GRANTED: Feb 23, 1981

James M. Smart, Jr. - on behalf of Respondent
Ted D. Ayres - on behalf of Petitioners

Facts of the case

Cornerstone was an officially recognized student organization on the campus of the University of Missouri - Kansas City. The avowed purpose of Cornerstone was to promote a knowledge and awareness of Jesus Christ on the campus. From 1973 to 1977, Cornerstone obtained permission to use university facilities for its weekly meetings and events.

In January 1977, the group sought permission from the university to use two rooms of its Haag Hall Annex for two and a half hours every week. University officials asked for a description of the activities that would be conducted at the proposed meetings. Cornerstone told the university that worship in the form of prayer and biblical teaching would be an important part of the general atmosphere of the meetings. University officials rejected Cornerstone’s application for regular use of the rooms, concluding the meetings would violate several sections of the Collected Rules and Regulations of the University of Missouri. These regulations prohibited the use of university buildings and grounds for religious worship or religious teaching.

On December 11, 1979, the trial court granted summary judgment to Gary Widmar, the Dean of Students at the university, and the university’s Board of Curators, rejecting a motion for summary judgment filed by Cornerstone’s members. It concluded that the university’s ban on religious services in its buildings was required by the First Amendment’s establishment clause. It also held that the university did not violate the students’ free exercise rights, and that any violation was outweighed by Missouri’s compelling interest in the separation of church and state. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. It held that the university’s regulation had the primary effect of inhibiting religion, in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Instead, the Eighth Circuit suggested that a neutral policy toward religious groups would satisfy the university’s First Amendment obligations.


Did the refusal of the University of Missouri to accommodate voluntary student religious meetings violate Cornerstone members’ rights of equal access to a public forum protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?

Did the refusal of the University of Missouri to accommodate Cornerstone’s religious meetings unconstitutionally abridge freedoms of speech, association, and exercise of religion?

Media for Widmar v. Vincent

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 06, 1981 in Widmar v. Vincent

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 08, 1981 in Widmar v. Vincent

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in the case of Widmar against Vincent will be announced by Justice Powell.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This case is here from the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

It involves the validity of a regulation at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

The University provides facilities for all student groups that wish to meet on its campus.

More than a hundred such groups, including a religious group, called Cornerstone, were officially recognized by the University.

The Cornerstone group was informed that it could no longer meet in University buildings.

The exclusion was based on a regulation that prohibited the use of its buildings or grounds for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.

This suit was instituted by members of the Cornerstone group.

They allege a violation of their rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

The University defended on the ground that use of its facilities for religious worship or discussion would offend the Establishment Clause of the Constitution as well as the Missouri Constitution.

The District Court dismissed the suit agreeing with the University's position.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

In our opinion today, we agree with the Court of Appeals.

We hold that religious worship and discussion are forms of speech and association protected by the First Amendment.

A state university's regulation of speech must be content neutral absolutely showing of a compelling state interest that justifies discrimination.

And the University policy of neutrality as to the content of speech does not sponsor religion any more than the speech of other student groups.

A University's mission is education.

Our decision today is entirely consistent with the authority of a University to impose reasonable regulations compatible with that mission upon the use of its campus and facilities.

In this case however, the University created a public forum from which only religious groups were excluded.

The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.

Justice Stevens has filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Justice Powell.