Freedom of religion means the right of religious persons, groups, and ideas to participate fully and equally in the life of the community and in the marketplace of ideas.
Thirty years ago today, on December 8, 1981, the Supreme Court decided the case of Widmar v. Vincent—probably the most important pro-religious-liberty judicial decision of the modern era. The question at issue was whether the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), a state university, could bar a Christian student group named “Cornerstone” from using university facilities because the students wished to engage in religious worship and expression. While UMKC allowed other student groups to use its facilities, the university excluded Cornerstone from doing so under a regulation forbidding the use of its buildings “for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching.”
By a vote of 8–1, the Court held that the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause protects religious speech and association by private speakers and groups, just as it protects speech by any other speakers on any other subject, and that the Establishment Clause does not authorize discriminatory exclusion of religious speech....Widmar marked a decisive turning point. Of course, the disposition to suppress private religious expression—to exclude, to hamper, to discriminate—persists even today. But Widmar (with its many successor cases) stands firmly in the way of the view that such suppression is in any way justified, let alone required, by the onstitution. Widmar repudiated such First Amendment ignorance.
Here is what the Court held in Widmar: Freedom of speech forbids government from prohibiting, punishing, or penalizing speech based on its content. This was already an oft-stated principle. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment thus forbids government from excluding religiousspeakers and groups from forums for expression—or from any other benefit—on account of the religious content of their expression or the religious nature of their views or association.
...Widmar’s free-speech holding is thus fundamental to the freedom of religion. It is the basis for the right of evangelism: Freedom of religious expression, and the equal status of religious ideas, keep government from suppressing religious discourse and debate. And Widmar’s free-speech principle is closely allied with the freedom to exercise one’s religious convictions in society generally: It is the principle that proclaims the equal status of religious views, religious arguments, religiously motivated actions, religious associations, and religious identity in American public life. Freedom of religion means, at bedrock, the right of religious persons, groups, and ideas to participate fully and equally in the life of the community and in the marketplace of ideas....
Michael Stokes Paulsen is University Chair and Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, and co-director of its Pro-Life Advocacy Center ).