Bench Memos

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30th Anniversary of Widmar v. Vincent


In a Public Discourse essay, law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen calls our attention to the fact that today is the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Widmar v. Vincent, which Paulsen lauds as “probably the most important pro-religious-liberty judicial decision of the modern era.” Here is an excerpt (but if you’re interested in the topic, be sure to read the whole essay):

Here is what the Court held in Widmar: Freedom of speech forbids government from prohibiting, punishing, or penalizing speech based on its content.… The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment thus forbids government from excluding religious speakers 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. Furthermore, the Court went on to hold, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, so often unthinkingly invoked to wall off religion from the public sphere, emphatically does not authorize or justify discriminatory exclusion of private religious speakers and groups from public forums for expression, or from other public benefits.…

Few principles of the freedom of speech are more foundational or of greater practical importance to religious liberty than the proposition that religious speech is as fully protected as speech on any other subject: Religious speech, association, or identity can no more serve as the basis of exclusion from a public forum or a public benefit than can any other viewpoint or affiliation. Religious freedom might mean more but cannot mean less than full and equal inclusion in the public sphere and the right to share in First Amendment freedoms of expression and 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.


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