Nassau Hall has reversed its policy on the recognition of religious student groups after being contacted by an outside civil liberties organization that protested the treatment of one such group as an "ongoing injustice."
Under the new policy, religious student groups with ties to faith organizations without established "campus ministries" will be considered for official student group status using the same criteria as other groups. Previously, such student groups were denied recognition.
The policy change allowed Princeton Faith and Action (PFA), a new evangelical group, to seek official student group status — which it was recently granted. PFA is affiliated with Christian Union, an evangelical organization that focuses on the Ivy League that had asked for and been denied campus ministry status.
"We consider this matter to be of the utmost urgency, with the most essential legal and moral values at stake," wrote David French, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), in an April 19 letter to President Tilghman. "We hope to see this matter resolved with fairness, common sense and respect for the principle of legal equality."
Tilghman replied three days later, promising action.
"We guarantee that University recognition will not be withheld from any group pursuing lawful objectives merely because its aims may seem unorthodox," Tilghman wrote. "These policies are important to our educational community, and we welcome the opportunity to ensure they are being fully implemented."
PFA had sought recognition from the USG's Student Groups Recognition Committee (SGRC) in early April, but was told that it would have to obtain approval from the Office of Religious Life (ORL) first, as per University policy.
Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life Tom Breidenthal declined to approve PFA at that time, citing a policy against the approval of religious student groups affiliated with outside religious organizations that aren't recognized campus ministries.
"When we recognize a campus ministry, we are seeking to welcome them fully into the life of the campus," Breidenthal said in an interview Thursday. "Our recognition policy definitely seeks to ensure that anyone who is recognized is committed to pluralism and the right of students to believe and say what they will — that is, to religious freedom — and fully committed to the educational mission of the University."
Breidenthal said he made his decision to reject Christian Union, which was founded in 2002 by Cornell alumnus Matt Bennett and has offices in Princeton, because it was a new group.
After Breidenthal declined to approve PFA's application, Cameron Young '05, the group's president, and Bennett contacted FIRE, a Philadelphia-based civil liberties group, and asked for their help.
Within weeks, FIRE wrote to Tilghman and the policy was reversed, allowing student groups with ties to outside religious groups to apply for official status based on the same standards applied to all other student groups.
"PFA will be recognized as a student group, subject to the same rules as other, nonreligious student groups," said Provost Christopher Eisgruber '83 in an email Thursday. "Some of these groups, both religious and nonreligious, have connections to outside organizations. Of course, the outside organization cannot claim to have the status or privileges of a campus ministry unless it goes through the proper approval process."
The University's swift action took FIRE and PFA by surprise.
"We're extremely pleased that Princeton reacted very quickly," said French, FIRE's president, in an interview Thursday. "They did the right thing very quickly. Universities will dig in their heels to rationalize and justify things, but they recognized that [the old policy] was inappropriate and unfair and unjustified. They are to be commended."
Young, PFA's president, called the policy shift "a massive improvement."
"If religious groups have to go through an extra loophole, that's a difference and that difference shouldn't exist," he said. "For me, what I feel strongly about is Christianity and I'd love to open up discussion about that. I don't see anything unorthodox about that."
PFA is not the only student group affected by the policy change. In recent weeks, the Chabad Student Group (CSG), a Jewish student group, failed to receive official approve from ORL, according to Will Scharf '08, one of the group's board members.
Denying University recognition of and funding to religious organizations, French said, is becoming increasingly common on American college campuses because of concerns about nondiscrimination.
"We've seen a severe problem with actions taken against Christian and other theological conservative groups," he said. "It's a big problem that goes across the country from all levels of education, from the Ivies down to the community college level."
Eisgruber, however, defended Breidenthal's earlier rejection of PFA's application, saying the problem then was not one of the University attempting to restrict students' right to freedom of expression, but of a flawed policy.
"I believe that Dean Breidenthal applied that policy reasonably in this case; we were convinced not that his application of the policy was wrong, but rather that the policy itself was mistaken because it did not treat religious groups fairly by comparison to nonreligious groups," Eisgruber said.
Bennett, Christian Union's founder and president, said his organization will consider reapplying for campus ministry status because there is a need on Ivy League campuses for religious groups.
"These universities have such a strong Christian heritage, but comparatively don't have much Christian resources and flavor as a lot of other colleges across the country," Bennett said.
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