Trial Counsel...practicing preventive law

  Call 816-398-8967
                 Email:  info@TheWhiteheadFirm.Com

Widmar Case Summary

Case History

The opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court is located at 454 U.S. 263. The opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit is located at 635 F.2d1310. The opinion of the U.S. District Court (W.D.Mo.) is located at 480 F.Supp. 907.


About The University of Missouri-Kansas City: Founded in 1929, the university has an enrollment of approximately 14,000 students. It is located in Kansas City’s Rochill District. The school allows over 100 recognized non-religious student groups to meet on its campus. All students pay a $41 activity fee (1978-1979) per semester to support this privilege. UMKC is a part of the University of Missouri system, which is governed by the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri. Defendant Gary E. Widmar is a dean of students.

About Cornerstone: Cornerstone is an evangelical Christian student-led organization. The group is registered with the university and met on campus from 1973 to 1977. Plaintiffs were all active members of the organization at the time this action was first filed.


1972 – School Policy at Issue: School Regulation # 4.0314.0107 is adopted. It states,

“No university buildings or grounds (except chapels as herein provided) maybe used for the purpose of religious worship or religious teaching by either student or non-student groups…The general prohibition against using University buildings and grounds for religious worship or religious teaching is a policy required, in the opinion of the Board of Curators, by the Constitution and the laws of the State and is not open to any other construction. No regulation shall be interpreted to forbid the offering of prayer or other appropriate recognition of religion at public functions held at University facilities.”

1977—January: Cornerstone applies for the privilege of using university facilities, on a regular basis, for its meetings.

1977 – February 4: Cornerstone’s application is rejected by the university. The university determines that the conduct at Cornerstone meetings would violate 4.0314.1017.

1977 – The Case: Eleven UMKC student members of Cornerstone file suit in federal district court seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief with respect to the university’s policy.  In their argument they raise 1st and 14th Amendment equal protection, freedom of speech, and religious free exercise challenges. The court entered summary judgment for the university.

1980 – 8th Circuit: The circuit court found (3-0) that by opening up its buildings for use by student organizations, the university had created a “public forum.”  As a result, the circuit court ruled that the university’s exclusion of Cornerstone was not only a content-based restriction on free speech, but also a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Rehearing of the case en banc is denied on September 19. In an unusual move, two circuit judges write a dissenting opinion protesting this decision.

1981 -- The Supreme Court grants the petition for cert. on February 23.

Legal Basis for Decision

Limited Public Forum: By creating a forum generally open for use by all student groups, both sides agree that the university has assumed an obligation to constitutionally justify its discrimination and exclusion.

Establishment Clause: The parties disagree about whether allowing Cornerstone to have access to university facilities would be a government endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The Establishment Clause prohibits government speech endorsing religion while private speech in support of religion is protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses. With respect to equal access to limited public forums for religious groups, the Supreme Court typically finds no violation of the Establishment Clause where there is little concern that the public would perceive an endorsement of religion by the government entity and where any benefit to religion is merely incidental.

Legal Principles at Issue

The U.S. Supreme Court based its decision on two determinations. First, the cout found that the university had violated Cornerstone’s free speech rights when it excluded the organization from university property.  Second, the court found that the university’s concern about an Establishment Clause violation was unwarranted.  As such, it could not justify the curtailment of Cornerstone’s right to free speech.

Public Forum: The court ruled that the university’s exclusionary policy violated the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause because of the policy’s content-specific nature. In order to justify a content-specific regulation of speech, the university must show that the regulation is intended to promote a compelling state interest. Additionally, that interest must be achieved through a narrowly tailored policy. The court determined that the state interest asserted by the university – achieving a greater separation of church and state than is already insured under the Establishment Clause – was limited by the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses, and was thus not a valid “compelling state interest.”

Establishment Clause: In order to determine if the university’s inclusion of Cornerstone would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court utilized the much maligned 3-pronged test of Lemon v. Kurtzman.  Under this test 1) the government policy must have a secular legal purpose 2) the policy’s principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances or inhibits religion and 3) the policy must not foster an “excessive government entanglement with religion.” The Court was not persuaded by the university’s argument that the establishment of a religious forum would have the “primary effect” of advancing religion.  To the contrary, the court determined that opening a public forum to all forms of discourse was an inherently neutral action by the university. The fact that a religious organization might benefit from equal access to university facilities was an “incidental” benefit at best.

As the lone dissenter, Justice White argued that the court had erred disastrously by suggesting that there was no difference between religious speech and other forms of speech.  He argued that as a result of the court’s revolutionary decision, it would be required to re-examine all of its rulings on prayer in public institutions – including prayer in public schools.


“An open forum in a public university does not confer any imprimatur of state approval on religious sects or practices.  As the Court of Appeals quite aptly stated, such a policy ‘would no more commit the University . . . to religious goals’ than it is ‘now committed to the goals of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Socialist Alliance,’ or any other group eligible to use its facilities.” (Justice Powell)

“It seems apparent that the policy under attack would allow groups of young philosophers to meet to discuss their skepticism that a Supreme Being exists,or a group of political scientists to meet to debate the accuracy of the view that religion is the "opium of the people." If school facilities may be used to discuss anticlerical doctrine, it seems to me that comparable use by a group desiring to express a belief in God must also be permitted.” (Justice Stevens)

“A large part of respondents' argument, accepted by the court below and accepted by the majority, is founded on the proposition that because religious worship uses speech, it is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Not only is it protected, they argue, but religious worship qua speech is not different from any other variety of protected speech as a matterof constitutional principle. I believe that this proposition is plainly wrong.  Were it right, the Religion Clauses would be emptied of any independent meaning in circumstances in which religious practice took the form of speech…… If the majority were right that no distinction may be drawn between verbal acts of worship and other verbal acts, all of these [religious speech/Establishmentclause] cases would have to be reconsidered. Although I agree that the line maybe difficult to draw in many cases, surely the majority cannot seriously suggest that no line may ever be drawn. If that were the case, the majority would have to uphold the University's right to offer a class entitled "Sunday Mass."  Under the majority's view, such a class would be - as a matter of constitutional principle - indistinguishable from a class entitled "The History of the Catholic Church." (Justice White, dissenting)

Website Builder