Campus Access Upheld for Christian Student Groups

Christianity Today/September 19, 1980

Christian student groups at public universities were affirmed last month in their right to use campus facilities for religious purposes. Specifically, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas City, Missouri reversed a lower court decision that had sustained a University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) policy barring recognized student groups from using university facilities and grounds for religious purposes.

The school had argued that the campus religious meetings would violate constitutional prohibitions against establishment of religion. But in writing the opinion of the three-judge panel, Circuit Court Judge Gerald W. Heaney concluded that the school's denial placed an impermissible burden on students' constitutional rights and "is not justified by a compelling state interest in avoiding an establishment of religion."

Christian student groups applauded the ruling, and called the Missouri decision (Vincent v. Widmar) an affirmation of crucial freedoms. The UMKC case had generated considerable interest nationwide, since many believed it would set a legal precedent for similar cases (June 6 issue, p.44).

In 1977 a Christian student group at UMKC, Cornerstone (one of 90 recognized student groups at the school), had requested the continued use of a particular lecture hall for its Saturday night meetings. Responding to a school request for more information, the group had explained its weekly meetings included informal sharing, prayer, Bible study, and hymn singing. The meetings would be open to the public, and there would be no offerings or solicitation of funds. While Cornerstone meetings would differ from a traditional worship service, the group had acknowledged: "There is also no doubt that the undecided and uncommitted are encouraged and challenged to make a personal decision in favor of trusting in Jesus Christ both for salvation and for the power to live an abundant Christian life on earth."

As a result, the university had concluded that Cornerstone's meetings would violate its regulations prohibiting the use of university buildings or grounds for purposes of religious worship or religious teaching. The group was forced to meet in a building off campus; its later request to hold small group Bible studies on the university lawn also was denied.

Eleven Cornerstone members then had appealed the university's decision -alleging violation of their rights to free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and equal protection of law. However, in December 1979, U.S. District Court Judge William R. Collinson upheld the school's policy. He said a policy allowing student religious meetings on campus would constitute an establishment of religion. He also refused to invoke on the students' behalf the free exercise of religion clause, saying for that to happen the infringed practice must he one "of deep religious conviction." Holding religious services in a university-owned building does not establish itself as a "matter of deep religious conviction," he ruled.

Some observers blamed Collinson's decision for establishing a precedent that led to a subsequent U.S. District Court decision, Dittman v. Western Washington, involving the rights of Christian student groups at Western Washington University in Bellingham. That decision in March upheld a school policy that restricts and regulates student groups' use of campus facilities for religious meetings.

Affected groups included Campus Crusade and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which are allowed no more than two religious meetings in campus facilities per academic quarter; they have challenged the ruling in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, and a decision is not expected for at least several months.

Lynn Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society (CLS)-the Oak Park, Illinois-based agency involved heavily in both the Missouri and Washington cases -hailed the Missouri decision. However, he noted it did not speak to all the issues involved.

Construed narrowly, he said, the Missouri case states only that the university cannot prohibit campus religious groups from organizing and meeting. "The Washington decision agreed with that, but it also said we may regulate them (religious groups) in ways that we do not regulate other groups."

Buzzard did believe the recent decision would "certainly help" in the Washington case. If Christian student groups won this second victory, he said, "I think the full panoply of rights that we [CLS] wanted to defend ... will have been secured in at least those two judicial districts." In that event, Buzzard said CLS might next focus its efforts in the same two jurisdictions on securing for high school students the same rights to use school facilities for religious purposes.

In its 25-page decision, the Eighth Circuit Court indicated the UMKC situation differed from one involving a high school group's request for use of classrooms for prayer and Bible study-a hot issue in some parts of the country.

High school students require more supervision than college-age young adults, and "this supervision necessarily poses a greater risk of entangling governmental authority in religious issues," the court ruled. Also, the court recognized that college students rely more on their campus as their total community: "They can expect from it a greater accommodation of their religious needs than high school students can from their schools."

Following are excerpts from the August 4, 1980 decision, Vincent v. Widmar, filed in the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas City, Missouri.

  • "We cannot agree, however, that such a policy (allowing religious meetings) would have the primary effect of advancing religion. Rather, it would have the primary effect of advancing the University's admittedly secular purpose-to develop students' 'social and cultural awareness as well as their intellectual curiousity [sic].' It would simply permit students to put their religious ideals and practices in competition with the ideas and practices of other groups, religious or secular. It would no more commit the University, its administration or its faculty to religious goals than they are now committed to the goals of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Socialist Alliance, the Young Democrats or the Women's Union."

  • "In contrast with a neutral policy, UMKC's current regulation has the primary effect of inhibiting religion, an effect which violates the Establishment Clause just as does governmental advancement of religion. . . . The University's policy singles out and stigmatizes certain religious activity and, in consequence, discredits religious groups.

"The University's prohibition on worship and religious teaching also hopelessly entangles it in the delicate tasks of defining religion, determining whether a proposed event involves religious worship or teaching, and then monitoring events to ensure that no prohibited activity takes place."

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