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Supreme Court of the United States

The Story Behind Widmar v. Vincent

October 17, 2017

Part I: The Christian Student Group That Was "Too Influential on Campus"

If you are -- or have been in the past 30 years -- part of a religious student group on a public university campus (or for that matter on a high school campus), you owe that privilege to the decision of a group of college students in Kansas City in 1977. At a time when courts were wrestling – in some cases unfavorably – with the question of whether the Establishment Clause required public universities to exclude religious student groups from campus, Cornerstone at the University of Missouri-Kansas City decided to defend their (and your) rights in court. The result was the Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Widmar v. Vincent, holding that the First Amendment prevented public universities from discriminating against religious student groups.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Jonathan Williams, is now a pastor at Grace Community Church near San Antonio and recently spoke to me about Cornerstone, the case and the environment on campus, the decision, and his words for today’s students who face discrimination by their universities. What follows is the first of a three post series taken from my interview with Pastor Williams:

In the early 1970s a group of churches were planted with the specific intent of reaching out to college students. It was from this movement that Cornerstone at the University of Missouri-Kansas City was born. According to the Supreme Court, Cornerstone at UMKC was “an organization of evangelical Christian students from various denominational backgrounds.” Its purpose was to "promote a knowledge of Jesus Christ among students." Chess v. Widmar, 635 F.2d 1310, 1312 (8th Cir. 1980). Although affiliated with the local church plant, Cornerstone met on campus in university buildings just as the other one hundred student groups at UMKC did and told the school that its meetings addressed "various topics relating to Christianity and the Bible." “We engaged in personal evangelism and open air preaching, but we also sought to give a reasoned presentation of the Christian faith in the academic environment,” said Jonathan Williams, then member of Cornerstone. The “backbone” of Cornerstone as the Supreme Court noted was about 20 evangelical Christian students and leaders who ran the group, but its meetings (which included worship) were open to everyone and drew as many as 125. Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 265 n2 (1981). As noted in the District Court, “[a]ny students, be they Jewish, Christian, Moslem or any other persuasion are invited, and, in fact, actively recruited by the students in Cornerstone.” Chess v. Widmar, 480 F. Supp. 907, 910 (D. Mo. 1979).

In other words, Cornerstone’s policies were “identical” to those of the Christian Legal Society and most other Christian campus ministries today, said Williams. “Cornerstone hosted debates between non-Christians and Christian apologists and brought in speakers to talk about faith from the perspective of various academic disciplines. So [like CLS] we wanted non-Christians and people who disagreed with us to be involved,” said Williams. But its leaders and those who spoke for the group were Christians. UMKC had no nondiscrimination rule applicable to membership and officer positions in student groups, let alone did it try to apply such a rule to require Cornerstone to allow non-Christians to lead its worship. What if UMKC had tried? “That would have been a non-starter,” said Williams, “we would have had to challenge that too.” “Cornerstone was a Christian ministry. It wouldn’t have been the same group if it had non-Christians running it.”

Cornerstone had been meeting on campus for several years when, out of the blue in 1977 they received notice that they couldn’t hold their regular worship activities and meetings on campus. “We did still have some meetings,” said Williams, citing some videos they showed and held discussions on afterward but they were no longer permitted to meet explicitly “for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.” Widmar, 454 U.S. at 266. Although this policy had been on the books for years, the school only enforced it for the first time four years after Cornerstone began. “We were told we were getting too influential on campus,” said Williams. While many students were apathetic about the situation, Williams described the tone from student government itself as “fairly hostile” toward Cornerstone in the meetings he attended where Cornerstone tried to plead its case.

Jonathan Williams and other students sought to persuade UMKC officials to change their stance, but they refused. UMKC officials told them that if they wanted to use buildings for worship there was an exception in the policy that would allow that in a campus chapel. Unfortunately, UMKC had no campus chapel. The nearest campus chapel was 125 miles away at the University of Missouri – Columbia campus. Williams met with a Mr. Hatch, the Chief of Buildings and Grounds at UMKC to ask about the possibility that a chapel might be built on campus, allowing Cornerstone to meet there. Hatch “stated that if we wanted a chapel, we would have to ‘get the ball rolling’ ourselves and that it would have to be funded by private donations.” Chess, 480 F.Supp. at 913 (D. Mo. 1979) (affidavit of Jonathan Williams). If they could just raise several hundred thousand dollars to build a chapel and give it to the school -- then they could meet on campus. "It was comical," said Williams, who saw the "offer" as an effort by the administration to "get rid of us or make us irrelevant."

Rebuffed by school administrators, Williams recalls that the students received much counsel and prayer about their decision on how to proceed. And at first he was somewhat hesitant about litigation. Asked if the group got counsel from other Christians encouraging them that the Christian response was to bear this cross as a consequence of following Christ, Williams laughed, “that was actually my response at first.” “But the others agreed we should go forward and their wiser heads prevailed.” His concern was that litigating the case would diminish the group’s witness on campus. “That was my first immature response, but that was wrong. If you have a righteous Godly attitude it doesn’t have to diminish your witness. In fact, it can increase your witness.” Cornerstone and the thousands of Christian student groups on campuses across the country that have relied upon its victory in Widmar v Vincent is evidence of that truth.

To be continued…

The next post will examine more on the environment at the time, the arguments against them, how they found their attorney, and a story from Dean Widmar himself about the interesting reaction of other universities to UMKC’s decision.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

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Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith

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