NEWTON, Mass. - Chelsea Lennox, a junior at Boston College, the Gothic university overlooking this natty Boston suburb, picked up a bouquet of brightly colored condompackages and put them into the envelope that she views as a tiny beacon of sexual health resources at the deeply Catholic institution.
“We have S.T.I. facts, birth control choices, how to choose one, and then Planned Parenthood locations and resources,” Ms. Lennox said of the contents, ready for distribution.
“We check for the integrity of every package. Everything we make sure is within its expiration date. The package is completely intact. There’s no lube leakage out of anything,” she said with a sheepish laugh.
Ms. Lennox is part of Boston College Students for Sexual Health, an unofficial campus group formed in 2009 that has worked with campus offices like residential life and health services to plan forums and programming around sexual health. On some Fridays, the group gives away condoms on a sidewalk adjacent to the campus, and it keeps an online list of about 15 dorm rooms, which it calls “safe sites,” where students can get free male and female condoms, lubricant and sexual health pamphlets.
But last month, Ms. Lennox and the other students involved in the effort received a letter from the administration, pressing them to stop. “The distribution of condoms is not congruent with our values and traditions,” read the letter, which was signed by Paul J. Chebator, the dean of students, and George Arey, the director of residential life.
“While we understand that you may not be intentionally violating university policy, we do need to advise you that, should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the university,” the letter said.
The group and the administration scheduled a meeting to discuss the matter for April 29. Meanwhile, they have settled into an uneasy detente in their disagreement over how sexual health practices and Jesuit teaching should coexist in contemporary college life - with tensions heightened by a swirl of news coverage.
“As a Jesuit, Catholic university, there are certain Catholic commitments that we are called to uphold, including the commitment not to publicly distribute condoms on our campus,” Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the college, said in an e-mail.
Both the “Sexually Transmitted Infections” and the “H.I.V./AIDS” sections of the college’s Web site say abstinence is the best way to prevent disease and do not mention forms of birth control. The ban on the distribution of condoms on campus is similar to bans at other universities with Catholic founding missions, like the College of the Holy Cross and Stonehill College, both in Massachusetts, and the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana.
The members of the sexual health group say they have no intention of ceasing distributions.
“Students are going to be having sex regardless, and unless they have the education to know that you need to use a condom every time - for pregnancy prevention, S.T.I. prevention - and unless they have them available, they’re not going to use it,” said Lizzie Jekanowski, a senior and the chairwoman of the group. “It harkens to a much deeper Catholic morality of caring for your neighbor - and that’s literally what we’re doing, is caring for our neighbors.”
Ms. Jekanowski estimated that the group hands out up to 5,000 condoms a semester, some of them donated by the Great American Condom Campaign. The group receives money from outside sources like Washington-based Advocates for Youth, and is affiliated with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
“We just wanted to help normalize the presence of condoms, whereas before, they were super taboo,” said Scott Jelinek, a founding member of the group, who graduated from Boston College in 2010 and teaches at a public school in Denver. “Students need the resources to make safe and healthy decisions.”
The group’s actions have for years stirred opposition from the college’s more conservative students, some of whom have written letters to campus publications and, in 2011, held a demonstration in which they handed out packages of dental floss while the group distributed condoms.
“To sort of be treated like either we’re not adults enough to provide for ourselves, or in some instance we’re animals that can’t control our passions, I think it’s degrading to the student body,” said Nathaniel Sanders, a Boston College senior.
“Having condoms distributed on campus is the university kind of validating hookup culture,” said Katelyn Conroy, a junior who leads the college’s Pro-Life Club. “The argument is that condoms prevent the spread of S.T.D.’s, but, really, if you hand out condoms on campus, it puts an idea in their head.”
Still, the group operated without incident for years, holding regular meetings with members of the administration.
“This letter out of nowhere that was threatening - and kind of bizarrely vaguely threatening - was really shocking,” Ms. Jekanowski said. “We’ve been doing this for years. Why is this happening now?”
The students say they were never directly asked to stop distributing condoms, while the university disagrees. “In every meeting, the students were told that distributing condoms in residence halls on campus was against university policy,” Dr. Chebator, the dean, said in a statement. He said the students had been told that they needed to stop the distributions if they wanted to continue working with the university.
“When the students did not respond to our requests, we issued them a letter of warning on March 15,” the dean said.
Dr. Chebator did not elaborate on the disciplinary actions the students could face if they ignored the warning, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has committed itself to defend the students.
“They don’t have a right to impose their religious beliefs on students or faculty, through threats and intimidation, when those students or faculty are engaged in lawful and constitutionally protected activity,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts.
Ms. Jekanowski and Ms. Lennox are preparing for their next sidewalk condom distribution, on Friday - to which, they said, the controversy has brought more attention.
“That’s been the student response more than anything else,” Ms. Jekanowski said. “ ‘Wait, I can get free condoms? Where?’ ”