In Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, the Supreme Court first established the important proposition that religion is a "viewpoint" that is entitled to protection from the unequal allocation of government benefits. Prior to this decision, it was often argued that religion is merely a subject matter, and that the government could exclude "religious" speakers from government benefits so long as it remained neutral among religions, and between religion and atheism or agnosticism.
In a wide range of cases involving access to government PROPERTY or public benefits, the state may discriminate on the basis of subject matter but not viewpoint.
The case arose when a church, named Lamb's Chapel, sought to use an auditorium in a public school during nonschool hours to show a religious film on the subject of child rearing. Under rules set by the school district, school facilities could be used during nonschool hours for social, civic, or recreational meetings or entertainment. Pursuant to state law, however, the district adopted a rule prohibiting the use of this property "by any group for religious purposes."
The church sued, arguing that the school property was a designated PUBLIC FORUM and that it is unconstitutional to exclude a group from such a forum on the basis of the religious viewpoint of its speech. Although the DISTRICT COURT and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected this argument, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed and adopted the plaintiffs' position.
The decision was an extension of WIDMAR V. VINCENT (1981), which had permitted university students to use university facilities for religious speech. Lamb's Chapel further opened the door to expanded FREEDOM OF SPEECH rights by religious groups on government property and in other government-subsidized forums. If religion is a "viewpoint" then it cannot be used as a basis for exclusion, no matter what type of forum may be involved, in the absence of a COMPELLING STATE INTEREST to justify it. The only such justification that appears plausible is compliance with the ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE. The Court held...