Princeton doesn’t often pit members of different class years against one another, and when it does, the contest usually involves a grassy tumble for a cane on Poe Field.
The Whig Senate Chamber hosted a more civilized alternative to Cane Spree Feb. 25: the Class of 1876 Prize Debate. Four students, James Hao ’12, Evan Larson ’13, Anthony Paranzino ’14, and Aaron Hauptman ’15, competed for the historic prize, established in 1886.
The debate, held annually on Alumni Day, pairs a senior and a freshman to debate against a junior and sophomore team. The four were selected as the top debaters in their respective class years from a pool of 25 students who competed in preliminary rounds. Based on the strength of the preliminary competition, Chelsea Ayres ’12, chairwoman of the Woodrow Wilson Honorary Debate Panel, introduced the four as “the best their class has to offer.”
With notes in hand, the two teams faced off across an intricately carved table in the center of the Senate Chamber. Students, alumni, and parents were seated around the debaters, with the judges, Ayres, Benjamin Weisman ’11, and Jason Anton ’10, poised at the chamber’s main podium.
The topic for the debate varies each year, and the 2012 participants were asked to debate whether religious freedom in the United States is “under attack.” The teams were given a day to prepare cases for both sides of the issue, but were informed which case they would be arguing just 30 minutes prior to the debate.
Hao and Hauptman argued that religious freedom is in danger, citing several examples of current religious controversies that have caught popular media attention. To make their case, the two described how both public opinion and government policy can hinder Americans’ right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. “Freedom of religion today has started to become freedom from religion,” said Hao.
Larson and Paranzino countered with arguments outlining a limited nature of freedom of religion, emphasizing the government’s obligation to remain “a neutral referee” with respect to any religious needs. “It is not the government’s job to police what we say … nor police what kind of religions we practice, nor support and subsidize certain religious practices,” said Paranzino. “The government needs to stay out of the entire religious business.”
After a series of individual speeches from both teams, Larson and Paranzino ultimately claimed the prize, with Larson chosen as the best speaker by the judges.
While the event tested the analytical and public speaking skills of the four debaters, Larson appreciated the opportunity to speak about relevant contemporary issues through the competition.
“It’s great that Princeton provides this forum for discussion,” Larson said. “A good part of the debate is that it isn’t about having the most research or the best empirical grounding. It’s really about talking about these issues that are a little more universal.”

Emily Trost ’13 is a geosciences major from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.