Montclair State University recently announced that students with religious exemptions to the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine are no longer authorized to live on campus beginning this summer. An Instagram post on The Montclarion’s account sharing the new guidelines immediately began to catch many people’s attention, garnering over 600 likes and over 200 comments, where many different perspectives and reactions were shared.
In an interview hosted by the university’s student media organizations, President Dr. Jonathan Koppell and Vice President of Student Development and Campus Life Dr. Dawn Soufleris reacted to these responses and explained the reasoning behind this new policy.
Koppell said the current policy requires students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and religious and medical exemptions have created significant implications for the university and students.
“In order to house students who were exempted from the vaccination policy, we had to put them in single rooms,” Koppell said. “And we didn’t charge them the full cost of those rooms, so for every single student who was in a single room, that was a financial cost to the university. If you have singles that can accommodate two students, that means that students who want to live on campus might not have access to those rooms.”
Koppell also clarified that this decision is not a violation of First Amendment rights.
“There’s no law that says exemptions granted on this basis are somehow constitutionally protected by the First Amendment or anything else,” Koppell said.
A sophomore English major who asked to remain anonymous said she feels disappointed, and that this decision has influenced her personal religious beliefs.
“I’m honestly deeply disappointed,” she said. “I feel like the school has turned its back on me and my religious rights. I’ve lived on campus for two years now and I’ve poured my heart and money into this institution. For me personally, I don’t have [a] family to live with and no family contribution to my income, so living on campus is my only feasible option using my financial aid.”
The student also added that she sacrificed her beliefs in order to be in compliance with the university’s requirements.
“I went against my religion and my family’s beliefs to stay at school and finish my degree,” the student said. “I didn’t have another choice. To be honest, it keeps me up at night. I live every day with guilt and shame, feeling like I endangered my relationship with God.”
La’Shaye Bishop, a sophomore justice studies major, said the administration should consider accommodating students with religious exemptions in the residence halls.
“Those with religious exemptions should be placed in a dorm together,” Bishop said. “Take surveys of those [students] with religious exemptions and ask if it’s OK to place them in a dorm with another student with the same exemption due to the safety of us all.”
Soufleris pointed out that the possibility of pairing up students with religious exemptions in the dorms is not an ideal plan.
“That’s actually not recommended by the CDC and OSHA, which is our higher education group within New Jersey,” Soufleris said. “Most public health [experts] will say you don’t want to congregate people who are unvaccinated because there’s a higher transmission rate and risk rate, so that did not feel appropriate. And we also didn’t want to say, ‘OK, so everybody who is exempt and unvaccinated, you’re all going to live in this one area.’”
The administration will also provide individual meetings for students who are being deeply impacted by the new policy and that reside far from campus to possibly provide them with a solution.
“Our Residence Life staff leadership is meeting with each of those students who wants a meeting to say, ‘what are your circumstances? Let’s see what the alternatives are,’” Soufleris said. “And I think that’s very reasonable. People have been very happy to say thank you for at least talking with us individually to find out what our extenuating circumstances are, and we’re trying to make some accommodations as best we can on an individual basis.”
Mark Clatterbuck, associate professor and chair of the religion department, says the new policy shows a level of inconsistency in the university’s mandates and that an unclear message is being sent to the Montclair State community.
“I think there’s a perceived inconsistency in the university’s policy where, on the one hand, we continue to honor religious exemptions for qualifying [Montclair State] students while, at the same time, denying them something as fundamental to the college experience as a place to live on campus,” Clatterbuck said. “I think that’s a conflict in both messaging and practice the university still needs to resolve.”
Clatterbuck also hopes the university will treat students with medical and religious exemptions equally.
“The fact [Montclair State] has found a way to safely provide campus housing for unvaccinated students with medical exemptions suggests that a similar path exists for students with religious exemptions,” Clatterbuck said. “I hope that we, as a university community, will offer such a path.”