Widmar v. Vincent

Citation454 U.S. 263,70 L.Ed.2d 440,102 S.Ct. 269
Decision Date08 December 1981
Docket NumberNo. 80-689,80-689
PartiesGary E. WIDMAR, et al., Petitioners, v. Clark VINCENT et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court
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. 273-278.

(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. 273-274.

(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 ac- cess" 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. 274-277.

(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. 277-278.

635 F.2d 1310, affirmed.

Ted D. Ayres, Columbia, Mo., for petitioners.

James M. Smart, Jr., Kansas City, Mo., for respondents.

Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the court.

This case presents the question whether a state university, which makes its facilities generally available for the activities of registered student groups, may close its facilities to a registered student group desiring to use the facilities for religious worship and religious discussion.

I

It is the stated policy of the University of Missouri at Kansas City 1 to encourage the activities of student organizations. The University officially recognizes over 100 student groups. It routinely provides University facilities for the meetings of registered organizations. Students pay an activity fee of $41 per semester (1978-1979) to help defray the costs to the University.

From 1973 until 1977 a registered religious group named Cornerstone regularly sought and received permission to conduct its meetings in University facilities.2 In 1977, however, the University informed the group that it could no longer meet in University buildings. The exclusion was based on a regulation, adopted by the Board of Curators in 1972, that prohibits the use of University buildings or grounds "for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching." 3 Eleven University students, all members of Cornerstone, brought suit to challenge the regulation in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Missouri.4 They alleged 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 to the Constitution of the United States.

Upon cross-motions for summary judgment, the District Court upheld the challenged regulation. Chess v. Widmar, 480 F.Supp. 907 (1979). It found the regulation not only justified, but required, by the Establishment Clause of the Federal Constitution. Id., at 916. Under Tilton v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 672, 91 S.Ct. 2091, 29 L.Ed.2d 790 (1971), the court reasoned, the State could not provide facilities for religious use without giving prohibited support to an institution of religion. 480 F.Supp., at 915-916. The District Court rejected the argument that the University could not discriminate against religious speech on the basis of its content. It found religious speech entitled to less protection than other types of expression. Id., at 918.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed. Chess v. Widmar, 635 F.2d 1310 (1980). Rejecting the analysis of the District Court, it viewed the University regulation as a content-based discrimination against religious speech, for which it could find no compelling justification. Id., at 1315-1320. The court held that the Establishment Clause does not bar a policy of equal access, in which facilities are open to groups and speakers of all kinds. Id., at 1317. According to the Court of Appeals, the "primary effect" of such a policy would not be to advance religion, but rather to further the neutral purpose of developing students' " 'social and cultural awareness as well as [their] intellectual curiosity.' " Ibid. (quoting from the University bulletin's description of the student activities program, reprinted in id., at 1312, n.1).

We granted certiorari. 450 U.S. 909, 101 S.Ct. 1345, 67 L.Ed.2d 332. We now affirm.

II

Through its policy of accommodating their meetings, the University has created a forum generally open for use by student groups. Having done so, the University has assumed an obligation to justify its discriminations and exclusions under applicable constitutional norms.5 The Constitution forbids a State to enforce certain exclusions from a forum generally open to the public, even if it was not required to create the forum in the first place. See, e. g., Madison Joint School District v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Comm'n, 429 U.S. 167, 175, and n.8, 97 S.Ct. 421, 426, 50 L.Ed.2d 376 (1976) (although a State may conduct business in private session, "[w]here the State has opened a forum for direct citizen involvement," exclusions bear a heavy burden of justification); Southeastern Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, 420 U.S. 546, 555-559, 95 S.Ct. 1239, 1244-1246, 43 L.Ed.2d 448 (1975) (because municipal theater was a public forum, city could not exclude a production without satisfying constitutional safeguards applicable to prior restraints).

The University's institutional mission, which it describes as providing a "secular education" to its students, Brief for Petitioners 44, does not exempt its actions from constitutional scrutiny. 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. See, e. g., Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180, 92 S.Ct. 2338, 2345, 33 L.Ed.2d 266 (1972); Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506, 89 S.Ct. 733, 736, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969); Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 487, 81 S.Ct. 247, 251, 5 L.Ed.2d 231 (1960).

Here the UMKC has discriminated against student groups and speakers based on their desire to use a generally open forum to engage in religious worship and discussion. These are forms of speech and association protected by the First Amendment. See, e. g., Heffron v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Inc., 452 U.S. 640, 101 S.Ct. 2559, 69 L.Ed.2d 298 (1981); Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 71 S.Ct. 325, 95 L.Ed. 267 (1951); Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558, 68 S.Ct. 1148, 92 L.Ed. 1574 (1948).6 In order to justify discrimina- tory exclusion from a public forum based on the religious content of a group's intended speech, the University must therefore satisfy the standard of review appropriate to content-based exclusions. It must show that its regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. See Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455, 461, 464-465, 100 S.Ct. 2286, 2290, 2292, 65 L.Ed.2d 263 (1980).7

III

In this case the University claims a compelling interest in maintaining strict separation of church and State. It derives this interest from the "Establishment Clauses" of both the Federal and Missouri Constitutions.

A.

The University first argues that it cannot offer its facilities to religious groups and speakers on the terms available to other groups without violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States.8 We agree that the interest of the University in complying with its constitutional obligations may be characterized as compelling. It does not follow, however, that an "equal access" policy would be incompatible with this Court's Establishment Clause cases. Those cases hold that a policy will not offend the...

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