Religion

Princeton University Policy: Political Protests, Yes; Church, No

The Princeton University campus in 2013. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
The school did not stop a social justice event that violated its coronavirus restrictions, but thwarted an on-campus Easter Mass.

Princeton University, where I am currently an undergraduate student, clearly has different standards for political protests and religious services. Princeton recently permitted a large anti-racism vigil that violated Social Contract guidelines, but upheld the restrictions for the Catholic organization’s Easter Vigil and Mass. Apparently, social-justice activists are immune to the coronavirus.

On March 27, several hundred Princeton University students and community members gathered for a “Stop Asian Hate rally and vigil” to condemn anti-Asian racism and to mourn victims of the recent Atlanta shooting. A Princeton University student publication reported that “protesters, who were instructed to be socially distant by organizers, appeared spread out,” although the photographs clearly demonstrate otherwise.

The event violated the university’s Social Contract, which explicitly requires signatories to “not host or attend any in-person gatherings on campus with more than five people indoors or ten people outdoors unless sponsored by the university or otherwise indicated by official, visibly displayed COVID-19 room occupancy limits.” Additionally, students may “not host or attend any in-person gatherings off campus with more than five guests in addition to the residents and to follow all state and local guidelines for indoor and outdoor gatherings.”

Princeton employees, including Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun, the administrator responsible for the Social Contract, attended the vigil. Prior to the spring semester, Calhoun sent all undergraduate students an email stating that “students living on campus, in Mercer County or Plainsboro, New Jersey, are required to complete an online training, submit proof of a flu shot and sign the Social Contract by January 4, 2021.” Why is the person who helped craft the Social Contact publicly violating it?

Student clubs promoted the vigil to hundreds of undergraduates. The entire Class of 2023 received an email from its Class Council. To avoid Social Contract violations, the student groups claimed they had no role in organizing the event. However, an Instagram Story post by the Class of 2023 Class Council explicitly recognizes the co-presidents of the Asian American Student Association as organizers.

On March 29, I wrote an email to the Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students, Thomas Dunne, with evidence that students had served as organizers for this event. I emphasized that, even if a student denied such involvement, the mere act of attending constituted a Social Contract violation. I observed that, if the university maintains that an event explicitly described as a “vigil” is a valid exception to the Social Contract, then members of the university’s Catholic organization should be exempt from contractual obligations to celebrate their Easter Vigil.

Dean Dunne’s response evaded my questions. Despite contrary evidence, Dunne wrote that “the rally was not organized nor registered by an undergraduate student organization.” He ignored the proof that attendance — regardless of organizational role — was a violation. He cc’d the Dean of Religious Life, Alison Boden, who later wrote that the Catholic chaplain had not requested approval for a gathering. Boden offered to open the university chapel for an Easter Mass at 25-person capacity. The Princeton University chapel can accommodate 2,000 people, and New Jersey currently allows places of worship to open at 50-percent capacity. Later, the university’s Catholic priest confirmed that the Dean of Religious Life had advised Princeton chaplains, in a meeting on March 10, to avoid providing services on campus. As a result, he did not request permission for a gathering.

Pause and consider: One week after the anti-racism vigil, the Social Contract was enforced for religious services. Princeton University’s Catholic organization, the Aquinas Institute, was unable to provide a regular Easter Vigil and Mass. There was a small Easter Vigil off-campus, altered in accordance with public-health protocols. The congregation strictly enforced social distancing, even physically separating the altar servers and predetermining seating arrangements, which were indicated by tape on the pews. We did not gather around the Paschal Candle, receive Holy Water, or blow out our candles. Princeton’s Catholic organization did not provide Easter Mass. Students, like other parishioners, had to preregister at the local church. Unfortunately, many students were unable to reserve a seat, given an extremely limited capacity.

I respect — and defend — my peers’ right to protest and to free expression. I did not attend the “Stop Asian Hate rally and vigil,” but I gather that the speakers offered powerful testimonies. As a passionate defender of the pro-life cause, I deem it important to recognize and mourn unjust murders. However, their demonstration was an extremely large gathering, which Princeton explicitly prohibits at the moment. As of March 1, over 50 students had faced disciplinary action for Social Contract violations. The infraction will be noted on their permanent academic records. Why should Princeton excuse Social Contract violations when they occur within an activist setting? This reveals an unfair double standard.

Moreover, many other examples show that Princeton discriminates against conservative organizations while permitting left-wing activities to occur without punishment. In January, Princeton Pro-Life requested permission to uphold its annual tradition of a march, but offered to remain in Princeton and forgo traveling to Washington, D.C. The university did not permit it.

In February, approximately 175 protestors gathered on campus to demand that Princeton University expand its COVID-19 resources to the broader community. The student newspaper reported that “the protest was organized by PMA, Princeton Anti-Austerity Coalition (PAAC), Unidad Latina en Acción New Jersey (ULA), and Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), with the support of Divest Princeton.” The event was promoted to students via email; one email stated “Join us as we demand: Expand free testing, tracing, and vaccinations to the town! Democratize COVID-related decisions!” Why were these protests permitted while the pro-life march was not?

Would the Princeton Pro-Life march have been acceptable if it had been presented as social-justice activism? After all, African-American babies are disproportionately aborted. A New York affiliate of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion business, has admitted that the organization was founded by a eugenicist whose motivations were racist. Furthermore, feminists should be outraged by sex-selective abortions, motivated by misogyny, that have led to 30 million more men than women in China. Meanwhile, 63 million girls are “missing” in India. Doesn’t fighting against the practice that has killed millions of tiny, innocent girls count as social justice?

To be clear, I am glad Princeton affiliates were able to express their feelings, grieve, and hopefully, find closure at their anti-racism vigil. I only wish that Catholics were afforded the same right of assembly for Easter. Is the problem that we are “worshipping,” rather than “protesting” or engaging in “activism?” Perhaps Christians should consider gathering every Sunday at 10 a.m. to protest against sin. This might meet the university’s threshold for activism.

Abigail Anthony is an undergraduate student at Princeton University studying politics and linguistics.