Student-Initiated Religious Speech
The issue: How should student-initiated religious speech be treated under the Free Speech and Establishment Clauses? 

Student-initiated religious speech raises issues under both the free speech and establishment clauses of the First Amendment.  It is true beyond question that students can privately pray or engage in other forms on religious speech in schools and on campuses--at least so long as their religious speech does not interfere with any legitimate objective of the school.  More difficult questions arise when students seek to use (or are prevented from using) school facilities or school funds for their religious speech when other student groups are allowed to use those same facilities or sources of funds for their non-religious speech.  Even more perplexing problems are presented when students use school activities such as commencement exercises or football games as opportunities to present their religious expression to other students and the general public, some of whom may not share their religious perspective.

In Widmar v Vincent, the Supreme Court considered the refusal of UMKC, a state-supported university, to allow use of rooms within its student center for Cornerstone, a student Christian organization.  UMKC allowed other student groups, including student political organizations, to use the meeting space, but argued that to allow use of the public rooms by a religious group would violate the Establishment Clause.  The Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 margin, disagreed, holding that the university had created a limited public forum and could therefore only deny use to groups if their use of the forum would be inconsistent with the purposes for which the forum was created.

Rosenberger v. University of Virginia relied on Widmar to find a Free Speech Clause violation in the refusal of Virgina to pay for the costs of printing a Christian student group's magazine when it paid for the costs of printing newsletters for other student organizations.  The majority found that the university had created a limited public forum in using student fees to fund the operations of student organizations, and that to deny funding to the Christian group because of the religious character of its magazine would be viewpoint discrimination. The four dissenters in Rosenberger argued that Virginia's refusal to fund the Christian magazine was a reasonable attempt to avoid conflict with the Establishment Clause, and denied that its policy constituted viewpoint discrimination.  The dissenters argued that direct state funding of an avowedly religious magazine would be unconstitutional.

The Court's Santa Fe v Doe decision in 2000 considered the policy of a Texas school district that allowed students to elect students to speak briefly over the PA system before high school football games.  Traditionally, the speeches were religious in character--the policy stated that the speeches should solemnize the event and be nonsectarian in nature.  The Court found the Santa Fe school policy to be a violation of the Establishment Clause.  The Court reasoned that the speeches were at a school-sponsored event, using school facilities, and would be taken by most observers as a school endorsement of the student prayers that were likely to be delivered.  The election process ensured, the Court thought, that the religious messages would reflect the religious views of the majority of Students, who in the case were generally Fundamentalist Christians.  The three dissenters argued that the school policy was neutral on its face and not a constitutional violation.  Nothing in the school policy, the dissenters said, even required that the message be religious in nature.


Widmar v. Vincent (1981)
Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995)
Santa Fe Indep. School Dist. v Doe (2000)

Marian Ward, a 17-year-old student, says a prayer before
a Santa Fe High School (Texas) football game.


1. Do you agree with the Court's view in Widmar that religious worship should be treated as a form of "speech" for purposes of First Amendment analysis?
2.  Could a university choose to prohibit all student groups from using university facilities?  Could it limit use to groups with missions directly relating to the university's curricular goals (e.g., math clubs, Spanish clubs, etc.)?
3.  Do you see a sound basis for distinguishing the direct state funding for the student Christian magazine, involved in Rosenberger, from the provision of student meeting space for a Christian student organization involved in Widmar?  Does it matter that the magazine has, as one of its goals, recruiting of new student members?
4.  How important is the history of the policy involved in the Santa Fe case--especially the fact that the initial policy specifically referred to "prayer" before the football games?
5.  Is it a violation of the Establishment Clause for a football coach at a public university to lead a voluntary prayer for players before the game?
6.  Is it permissible for a group of players, on their own, to gather in a lockerroom before the game and pray? 
7.  Is it permissible for members of the crowd at a football game to plan to sing hymms and recite prayers before a football game?  Does it become a constitutional violation if a school official, using the PA system, decides on his own to join the crowd in their hymm-singing and prayer?


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