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Supreme Court of the United States

The Story Behind Widmar (Part 2)

October 17, 2017

Part II: UMKC Becomes the Envy of Academia

This is the second of a three part series on the story behind Widmar v. Vincent, the seminal Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of Christian student groups on campus, taken from an interview with Jonathan Williams, one of the plaintiffs in the case who is now a pastor near San Antonio, Texas. For more on how the case arose and the group’s decision to file its complaint see part I.

     After much prayer and counsel Cornerstone decided that it could not simply go off campus and the only option to remain on campus as an official student group was to seek relief from a court. “The campus was the focus of our ministry, it would have been a major problem to be forced to meet off campus.” Williams said. In the district court Cornerstone explained that its exclusion from campus had resulted in decreased attendance as the group faced a “loss of visibility and identity as a campus organization.” Chess v. Widmar, 480 F.Supp. 907, 912 (W.D. Mo. 1979). As has been the experience with the CLS group at UC Hastings, when Cornerstone went off campus it lost relevance to many students who thought there must be “something ‘wrong’ with us … since [we were] banished from the campus.” Id.

     In 1977 there was no ADF – nor virtually any other Christian legal organization. But a Campus Crusade staff member put the group in touch with a local Christian attorney named James Madison Smart (talk about your prophetic names). Mr. Smart and his colleague, Michael Whitehead, took on the case pro bono. According to Smart, they had no inclination the case would become one of the most important First Amendment decisions of the past 3 decades. They again met with and sent a follow up letter to Dean Widmar, but when school administrators refused to relent in their treatment of Cornerstone, they filed suit.

     In part 1, Williams explained that from the beginning the group committed to pursue the case with a “righteous Godly attitude” so as not to diminish their witness on campus, including trying to maintain a positive relationship with the university administrators they were suing. This lead to some interesting and candid conversations with Dean Widmar. Himself a church-goer, Widmar told the Cornerstone students that he ducked down in the pew one Sunday when the pastor called on the congregation to pray for victory for Cornerstone. Widmar also once told them that he had received calls from universities all over the country asking for advice on how to deny access to Christian student groups. Whether due to hostility or simply a tendency to defer to the wishes of those who were hostile, this illustrates there was no lack of willingness among university administrators in the late 1970s to exclude religious student groups from their campuses. UMKC was the envy, not the outlier.

     The hostility toward Cornerstone was felt on campus as well. Williams and others attended student government meetings to plead their case and Williams recalls the opposition at these meetings as being “very vocal” and “nasty in their criticisms of Cornerstone.” But Williams does not recall ever having to deal with one of the primary arguments used against Christian students and student groups today: that racists will charge in through any door opened for the Christians. The high school equal access cases that followed Widmar, Lamb’s Chapel, and even university cases like Rosenberger and now even more prominently CLS v. Martinez, have all featured to some degree a claim that if the Christian group is treated equally then racists will soon follow in their footsteps. Of course, the Klan has yet to mobilize its long-predicted student movement but this specter of the KKK student group continues to be a favored argument against equal access for religious student groups. But Williams doesn’t recall this argument being made in Widmar. “They didn’t think they needed to,” he said. Until the Supreme Court’s decision, the school and those who supported it thought “the fact that we were talking about religion was enough” to justify their banishment from campus.

     With the decision in Widmar v. Vincent, the idea that the Establishment Clause demanded exclusion of Christians was no longer a viable argument -- at least at the university level.  The hostility toward Christian student groups did not stop, of course, but the schools that desired to deny them access would have to justify their exclusion in some other way.  I believe we continue to see this story play out in CLS v Martinez today.
To be continued…
In Part III we will look at Cornerstone’s path through the Courts, the happy day when the Supreme Court issued its decision, and Pastor Williams’ words of wisdom for today’s Christian students.

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