of Widmar v. Vincent
By Don Hinkle
While the Widmar v. Vincent case name may be virtually unknown to most Missouri Southern Baptists, it is a landmark case on two fronts.
Since 1981 it has provided legal protection that guarantees Christian students “equal access” to public school buildings in which they may hold Bible studies and other religious services as long as the meetings are student-initiated, student-led, voluntary and held during non-instructional times and are not disruptive to the normal operation of the school.
“Before, after, in between classes, during the lunch period, and on the playing field, students have the First Amendment right to free speech and freedom of religion,” writes attorney Matt Staver in his book, Eternal Vigilance. “Students can communicate with each other verbally, through literature, through jewelry, or through clothing with inscribed messages.”
Students may have access to books and films and gather in student clubs. The Equal Access Act requires schools to treat all clubs equally.
Second, Widmar was the first big win for the growing religious liberty movement. A “movement begun primarily by evangelical Protestants and other Christians to fight encroaching government power that threatened their ability to practice their faith in America, wrote Alan Sears, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney in his book, Bringing Justice to the People. “James Smart and Michael Whitehead, the attorneys for the victorious students in Widmar, were the ‘first of many brethren’ of public interest lawyers fighting in the courts for religious liberty as well as the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.”