Christian Student Group at Princeton Wins Religious Freedom Victory

May 17, 2005

Princeton University has decided it will no longer deny official recognition to an evangelical Christian student group. The school’s Dean of Religious Life, Thomas Breidenthal, had withheld recognized status from Princeton Faith and Action, but the university administration reversed course after an advocacy group intervened.

Princeton Faith and Action (PFA) is associated with the Christian Union, an off-campus ministry that had its own request to apply to have a full-time chaplain on campus rejected by Dean Breidenthal last year. In March 2005, after being blocked from reserving campus space through an existing recognized Christian student group, students organized PFA in order to hold activities independently.

However, when the members of PFA approached the student government to apply for official recognition, they were informed that because of the religious nature of their group they had to secure Breidenthal’s approval first — this, even though no such requirement is imposed on secular groups at Princeton. But on April 7, 2005, when PFA met with the Dean of Religious Life to discuss the possibility of recognition, he denied the group the opportunity to apply for recognition.

Breidenthal allegedly denied the evangelical student group’s request because he did not want to recognize a group that was associated with the Christian Union. According to PFA, the dean refused to explain why he disapproved of the other group, and when the students expressed concerns that the approval process seemed discriminatory, he told them this was “the way things are done” at Princeton.

However, the university decided to go another way after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Princeton president Shirley Tilghman. In that letter, FIRE president David French argued that religious groups on college campuses should be treated the same as other groups and should be immune from any arbitrary refusal of recognition.

The letter asserted that the university was exercising a “shameful and illiberal double standard” by requiring the religious groups to obtain the dean’s approval while secular groups faced no such litmus test. Also, the FIRE spokesman argued that by giving Breidenthal the power to arbitrarily approve or deny recognition to an organization, the university was granting him the power to censor religious groups without restriction or recourse.

According to French, this kind of censorship is not at all uncommon, and Christian student groups have been under siege on U.S. campuses for years. “I have dealt personally with more than 40 campuses across the country from the highest levels of our university system to the lowest,” he says.

The advocate for individual rights on campuses maintains that U.S. college and university administrations consistently change their behavior in response to public criticism or legal action, most denying all the while that anything was ever wrong in the first place. And at the same time, he adds, administrators like Breidenthal consistently get away with taking unconstitutional actions without ever having to face any consequences.

“There seems to be no institutional check or institutional control on administrators who censor and administrators who repress dissent and suppress religious liberty,” French points out. “That’s a real flaw in the system right now, and it’s something we’re going to be working hard to correct. We’re going to begin trying to hold individuals accountable for their actions.”

But despite persistent flaws in the way U.S. colleges and universities provide for and protect academic freedom and individual rights on their campuses, French says he is encouraged by the way this latest case was resolved. He adds hopefully that “perhaps the quick reaction by Princeton to restore the religious liberty rights of its students is an indication that the tide may be turning.”

Schools:  Princeton University

Cases:  Princeton University: Refusal to Recognize Religious Group