PRINCETON, N.J., May 11, 2005—In an important victory for religious liberty and freedom of association, Princeton University has decided to recognize a Christian student group that had been arbitrarily denied official recognition. After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Princeton on behalf of the Princeton Faith and Action (PFA) student group to remind the school of its stated commitments to freedom of religion and association, the university quickly moved to restore PFA’s rights and to recognize the group on an equal basis with other student organizations. Princeton also pledged to re-examine a policy that unfairly singles out religious student organizations for additional and exceptional scrutiny.
“This decision should come as a relief to all religious students at Princeton University,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. “In light of the increasing number of cases involving censorship and repression of religious students on campuses across the country, we commend Princeton for quickly responding to our letter and for fulfilling its promises to respect students’ freedoms of expression, association, and religion.”
PFA is associated with the Christian Union, an off-campus ministry serving Ivy League universities whose own request to apply to have a full-time chaplain on campus was rejected last year by Dean of Religious Life Thomas Breidenthal. In March 2005, after being blocked from reserving spaces on campus through an existing recognized Christian student group, students organized PFA in order to hold activities independently. When they approached the student government to apply for official recognition, however, student government officials explained that because their group was religious in nature, they were required first to obtain Dean Breidenthal’s approval—even though secular groups face no such hurdle.
According to PFA’s leaders, on April 7, 2005, at a meeting to discuss the possibility of recognition, Dean Breidenthal denied PFA the opportunity to apply for recognition because he did not want to recognize a group that associated with the Christian Union. When asked, Dean Breidenthal refused to give reasons for his disapproval of the Christian Union, and when the students expressed concerns that the approval process seemed discriminatory, the dean explained that this was “the way things are done” at Princeton.
After their meeting with Dean Breidenthal, the students contacted FIRE for assistance. On April 19, FIRE wrote President Shirley M. Tilghman
to protest this apparent violation of Princeton’s written policies safeguarding students’ freedoms of expression, religion, and association. FIRE explained, “[T]he fact that religious student groups must obtain the arbitrary approval of Dean Breidenthal grants him the power to censor religious groups without restriction or recourse. Non-religious student groups are not required to undergo such an administrative litmus test in order to apply for recognition. This policy constitutes a shameful and illiberal double standard.”
Only three days later, on April 22, President Tilghman responded
to FIRE, affirming the university’s “guarantee that…recognition will not be withheld from any group pursuing lawful objectives merely because its aims may seem unorthodox,” and that the university would “expedite a decision about recognition” for PFA. The president further noted that the university would also work “to determine whether other procedural changes are necessary to ensure that we treat student expressive organizations fairly.”
PFA met with student government representatives to review its proposal for recognition on May 4, and was recognized as a student group on May 6.
“In addition to recognizing PFA, Princeton has promised to mend procedures that may infringe upon its students’ rights,” commented Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “President Tilghman’s response serves as a positive example for other colleges and universities to follow.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org