The Religious Freedom Page

Widmar v. Vincent

454 U.S. 263 (1981)

Facts of the Case:

The University of Missouri at Kansas City ruled that its facilities could not be used by student groups “for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.” The school believed that the action was required under the Establishment Clause. A student religious group that had previously been permitted to use the facilities sued the school after being informed of the change in policy. They asserted that their First Amendment rights to religious free exercise and free speech were being violated.


The Court ruled that the Establishment Clause did not require state universities to limit access to their facilities by religious organizations.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Powell)

Because the University has generally permitted its facilities to be used by student organizations, it must demonstrate that its restrictions are constitutionally permitted. An equal access policy would not necessarily violate the Establishment Clause. The three-pronged Lemon Test would not be violated by such a policy. It would have a secular legislative purpose and not foster excessive government entanglement. The third part, that the policy’s primary effect would advance religion, is what the University claimed. “...this Court has explained that a religious organization's enjoyment of merely "incidental" benefits does not violate the prohibition against the "primary advancement" of religion.” Any such benefits at UMKC would be incidental. The state does not necessarily approve of all groups who use the open forum, and the forum is open to non-religious as well as religious groups.


This decision ensured greater access to public facilities by religious organizations. The state was not assumed to be in support of all messages that were communicated in their facilities.


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