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Supreme Court of the United States

The Story Behind Widmar v Vincent -- Part III (The Decision and Its Legacy)

October 17, 2017

In the first two parts of this series taken from an interview with Widmar v Vincent plaintiff Jonathan Williams, we have looked at the origins of the dispute and the decision to file and then the environment on campus and reaction of academia to UMKC’s exclusion of Cornerstone. This final edition will look at the three court decisions in the case and the legacy of Widmar.

Cornerstone’s counsel, Jim Smart, had been hopeful that UMKC would reverse the decision to deny Cornerstone meeting space after he sent a letter explaining the group’s rights and attaching a then recent favorable Delaware Supreme Court decision, Keegan v. University of Delaware, 349 A.2d 14 (Del. 1975). When UMKC did not relent, they filed suit and later a motion for summary judgment supported by affidavits from Jonathan Williams and Florian Chess. Chess later went on to become an accomplished attorney but sadly passed away in 2004.

On December 11, 1979 Judge William Collinson of the Western District of Missouri, a Johnson appointee, granted summary judgment for the University. Collinson held that “a university policy permitting regular religious services in university-owned buildings would have the primary effect of advancing religion” in violation of the Establishment Clause. Chess v. Widmar, 480 F. Supp. 907, 915-916 (W.D. Mo. 1979). Collinson also held that Missouri’s “interest in maintaining a strict separation between church and state is a sufficiently compelling interest to overbalance plaintiffs’ claims to free exercise of religion.” Id. at 917. As to plaintiffs’ free speech claim, Judge Collinson wrote: “In short, speech with religious content cannot be treated the same as any other form of speech. To do so would make a nullity of both the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the first amendment.” Id. at 918.

Williams was discouraged by the decision, but doesn’t recall Cornerstone ever considering backing down and giving up the fight. “Jim Smart encouraged us that we were likely to get a better result from the Court of Appeals.” Smart was right. Just a few months later, Jim Smart argued the case before a three judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Williams recalls Smart doing “an outstanding job and the judges asking very sympathetic questions.” But he also remembers doing his part from the gallery. “I remember keeping my best smiling ‘Christian face’ on during the argument, thinking that the judges would see me and somehow it would help. I chuckle now thinking about that.” Whether it was Smart’s advocacy or Williams’ smile that tipped the balance, on August 4, 1980 (less than 8 months after the district court’s decision) a panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held unanimously that the exclusion of Cornerstone from meeting space on campus violated the First Amendment. Chess v. Widmar (Chess II), 635 F. 2d 1310 (8th Cir. 1980).

As a result, Cornerstone was able to begin the 1980 school year with the ability to once again meet freely on campus. “We were hopeful that would be the end of it and our legal problems would be over,” said Williams. However, UMKC filed a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. “At first we prayed that the Court would not take the case. But then we realized that it might actually be a good thing if the Supreme Court took it because it could impact so many others.” After the Supreme Court granted certiorari, there was a bit more interest among students on campus. Williams was interviewed by the campus radio station whose host disagreed with Cornerstone’s position. The opposition was refreshingly honest, “his view was that it was ok for groups to talk about Marxism but not to talk about Christianity because the former was economic and the latter was religious,” said Williams. Before the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision, this was a valid argument. As UMKC argued and the district court had held, religious speech could not be treated the same as other speech. There was no need to resort to additional reasons for prohibiting religious speech. Religious ideas were necessarily not entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other speech.

On October 6, 1981 seven Cornerstone members, including Jonathan Williams made their way to the Supreme Court alongside their attorney, Jim Smart, making his first Supreme Court argument on their behalf. There was a buzz at the Court anyway because the day before had been the first day on the bench for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice in the Court’s history. According to Williams they covered the argument in prayer before and felt very good afterward. But then the wait for the decision began.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long. On December 8, 1981 – 28 years to the day before the Supreme Court granted certiorari in CLS v. Martinez -- the Supreme Court issued an 8-1 decision, authored by Justice Powell, affirming the decision of the Eighth Circuit. Writing that “our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities,” the Court held that “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.” The Court also rejected the argument that an open forum, where student groups could discuss any topic, would have the primary effect of advancing religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Nearly 30 years later, Williams remembers the day well. Calls started coming in from around the country, a Florida radio station called him for an interview, and his mailman knocked on his door to personally congratulate him. But after the calls stopped coming and the initial excitement died down, the real blessings of the Widmar decision kept snowballing. Although it is impossible to calculate the case’s real impact, it is likely that tens of thousands of students who otherwise would not have ever heard the Gospel have heard about it as a result of this Court victory. Universities were excluding Christian groups on college and high school campuses and eager for constitutional cover to do so. The Supreme Court’s decision in Widmar denied universities that cover and lead to the Equal Access Act and other protections for the rights of religious student groups that have allowed religious speech to claim equal footing on campus. It is no exaggeration to say that but for the decision in Widmar many of the national campus ministries might not exist. And the students who accepted Christ as a result of those groups’ work may have never heard the Gospel.

Williams knows of numerous such students at UMKC and other campuses that came to Christ through Cornerstone. In fact, he still stays in touch with several and even receives facebook notes from people whose lives were touched. As I noted at the beginning of this series, if you are presently part of a campus religious student group or ever have been, you owe that right to Jonathan Williams and his friends at UMKC who secured that right.

I asked Pastor Williams what he would say to today’s generation of college students facing questions not unlike those that Cornerstone faced in 1977. His response is worth quoting in full and making the conclusion of this series:

“Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Be confident that as Christians we not only have the answers for eternal life but for how this life should be lived. We should be the most confident, most grateful and most gracious. Understand what God has done for you and be willing to take a stand so that you can offer that to other students.”

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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