Thursday, October 22, 2015

An LDS Perspective on Religious Freedom at BYU


      "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious not to violate the conscience of others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable." - George Washington1 

       Meet Lydia. Lydia was raised Catholic and, until recently, attended Notre Dame University. While she was in school, Lydia became aware of the LDS church and began taking lessons from the missionaries. After learning the gospel, she decided to be baptized. But when the Notre Dame administration found out, Lydia was promptly expelled. When Lydia asked why she couldn't finish school at Notre Dame, the administration told her that as a Catholic she had made a commitment to her church, and by "distancing herself" from that commitment she could no longer be considered eligible to continue education at Notre Dame. In other words, she was expelled for becoming a Mormon.

       Fortunately, this story isn't true. Notre Dame does not expel its students for their beliefs. Unfortunately, though, while the setting is fictional, Lydia is not. Lydia is real, and she and others like her have indeed been expelled from their university because they changed their faith.2 But it doesn't happen at Notre Dame. It happens at BYU.

       The BYU honor code currently states that "disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the withdrawal of [a] student's ecclesiastical endorsement and the loss of good Honor Code standing. Disaffiliation is defined for purposes of this policy as removal of an individual's name from the official records of the Church."3 This means all current BYU students who choose to leave the LDS church are immediately expelled, even if they have done nothing else to violate honor code standards. While non-LDS students may attend BYU and change faiths without negative consequences, former LDS students lose their student jobs, are evicted from their housing, and send hours of college credit down the drain if it doesn't transfer to their next school.All this simply because they changed their faith.

       I am a BYU student and a believing latter-day saint. So let me say upfront that I don't advocate leaving the Church. I don't anticipate doing that myself and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Let me also acknowledge that, being a private school, BYU has every legal right to enforce this policy. It is perfectly legal for the university to hold students to the contracts they signed when they were admitted, and that includes this clause of the honor code. The question isn't whether BYU has the legal right to hold this policy, but whether it is moral and ethical to do so. This isn't a question of whether the Church is true, or whether BYU administrators are good people. It's simply a question of policy, and this is a policy that we as a university should put behind us as soon as possible.

       The honor code's disaffiliation clause discriminates against a single group of students because of what they believe. Some may argue that BYU does not actually restrict students' religious freedom because former LDS students are free to leave BYU and practice their new beliefs elsewhere, (i.e. if they don't like it, they can leave). But couldn't the same argument be applied in a university that expelled students who refused to hop around campus on one foot? Just because you'd be free to walk normally elsewhere wouldn't make the reason for your expulsion any less ridiculous. The fact remains that former LDS students face harsher consequences for their beliefs than do any other students on campus. Students who disaffiliate from the Church are forced to lose un-transferable credit hours and are fired from their jobs because of their private beliefs - that's a textbook case of discrimination.

       Religious freedom should be extended to all BYU students without punishing one group more than another. That's not just good ethics - it's a divine principle. In Alma 37:10 we read, "Now there was no law against a man's belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds." God wants all beliefs treated fair and equal - not to punish people for them. Only by revising this policy can we hope to put all BYU students onto equal grounds.

       Do we expel former LDS students as a last-ditch effort to coerce them into staying faithful? Or because we think they're apostates and they deserve to be cut off for their rebellion? If these are our reasons, then we are out of step with what our prophets and apostles have said. In a recent conference address, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, 
"In this Church… we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves."5 
So while we should recognize the truth of the gospel ourselves, we have no right to force others to believe as we do, or to judge them for their decision to leave. If God frowns upon their decision to leave the Church, surely that will be punishment enough, both now and in eternity. 

       Some might argue that rescinding this policy will hurt the Church by allowing ex-Mormon students to spread their anti-Mormon rhetoric across campus. But this assumes that every student who disaffiliates from the Church will become a vocal anti-Mormon. Should we try to punish a crime before it's committed? Why not give these students a chance? BYU could easily add a statement to the honor code saying that students who are disrespectful or antagonistic towards the LDS Church will be subject to university discipline. (The University of Notre Dame has a similar policy protecting the Catholic church.6) That way, we can protect our Church's reputation and protect religious freedom at the same time. 

       Rescinding this policy won't hurt the Church - but maintaining it will. In a day when Church members are fighting hard for religious freedom, this policy makes us hypocrites. We call for religious freedom abroad while we restrict it at home - and people are taking notice. Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer was invited to speak at BYU's annual symposium on law and religion, a forum where religious freedom is discussed and advocated. But when Dr. Juergensmeyer discovered our policy, he felt he could not, in good conscience, keep his engagement at the symposium. "I have decided that it would be hypocritical of me to participate in a conference in which the issue of religious liberty is paramount when the institution sponsoring it fundamentally violates this principle in its policies towards Mormon students," he said.7 Dr. Juergensmeyer's story was subsequently covered in the Huffington Post,8 Religion News Service,9 and the Washington Post,10 among other publications. This policy has also drawn attention from sources like The Daily Beast,11 the Salt Lake Tribune,12 Fox 13 news,13 as well as numerous anti-Mormon message boards, where people try to use this policy as evidence that the Church doesn't really care about religious freedom. For PR reasons alone, it's in our best interest to revise this policy. By doing so, we will demonstrate to the world that we practice what we preach, and that, just as we allow freedom of conscience to others, we deserve the same respect for ourselves. 

       Appearing hypocritical to the world is bad enough, but this policy also encourages hypocrisy among students. The current policy punishes those who honestly declare their beliefs while rewarding those who pretend to beliefs they don't really have. Students who are honest with their bishops get expelled while those who lie get diplomas. Several BYU students have admitted anonymously to having secretly disavowed the Church, even though they still go through the motions in public.14 These students are not only lying, but they're partaking of the sacrament unworthily and robbing tithe payers. LDS students at BYU get discounted tuition, paid for by tithing funds. Students who fake their church activity ought to pay the higher, nonmember tuition rate, but under the current policy they aren't allowed to switch. So they choose to stay quiet rather than lose their diplomas. So the current policy rewards the "whited sepulchres" (Matt. 23:27), while those who "believe in being honest" (Article of Faith 13) are swiftly expelled. By revising this policy BYU will demonstrate that we value honesty in both academics and personal matters, and we can start recovering our tithing funds by allowing a nonmember tuition rate for former LDS students.

       Some may contend that BYU should not revise this policy because disaffiliation from the Church is usually the result of serious sin. But while excommunication can (and should) be cause for dismissal, punishing students for disaffiliation alone causes those who are otherwise virtuous, chaste, and honest to be expelled for beliefs alone. In fact, disaffiliation is sometimes punished more harshly at BYU than serious sins. Consider Bradon Davies, a star basketball player during BYU's 2010-2011 season. Davies was suspended for the season after the honor code office found out he'd violated the law of chastity. While Davies had to withdraw from school for a time, he was re-admitted the following year, finishing his college career as a star athlete with full privileges.15 Such an option is currently unavailable to former LDS students, even if they have never been unchaste. This is not an argument against Davies, but rather the injustice of the current system. If we must punish students, we ought to let the punishment fit the crime, and not punish beliefs more harshly than actions.

       Finally, we have to consider what we are doing to the disbelieving students themselves. If these students are already doubting the truthfulness of the Church, how do they feel when an institution sponsored by the Church promptly kicks them out for believing differently? How likely is that student to return to the faith when a Church-sponsored institution booted them once they decided to explore other faiths and ideas? They won't return, because we've sent a clear message that they are not welcome here. This isn't how Christ would have us treat them. In 3 Nephi 18 Jesus speaks of those who leave the Church and He commands that they no longer be numbered among the members. "Nevertheless," he says, "ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them" (3 Nephi 18:32). Let's obey Christ's counsel and not cast the unbelievers out from among us. If they want to stay at BYU why not let them, so long as they pay the proper tuition? Here they will be surrounded by strong members, they'll be required to take religion courses, and they'll have the chance to hear from inspired leaders on a regular basis. If we send them away it may be a long time before they even come in contact with the gospel again. Let's keep them here and see whether we can't bring them back into the fold.

       As a Church-sponsored university, this policy is a big problem for us. Fortunately, there is a solution: we can change our policy to omit disaffiliation from the Church as grounds for expulsion, allowing respectful, former LDS students to stay at BYU, so long as they pay a higher tuition rate. Please contact the honor code office today to let your voice be heard regarding this issue (email: hco@byu.edu). If you don't wish to email them directly, add your name to the thousands who have already signed this petition requesting the change. No one should be afraid for what they believe. Let's put this policy in our rearview mirror and make BYU a stronger, fairer, and more Christlike institution than it has ever been before.


Notes:
 1. Carter, Joe. "10 Quotes for Religious Freedom Day | Acton PowerBlog." Acton Institute PowerBlog. January 16, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

2. Mongie, Lydia. "What Is It like to Leave the Church at BYU?" The Student Review. October 9, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

3. "Church Educational System Honor Code." 2014-2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

4. "Overview." FreeBYU. Accessed October 23, 2015.

5. Uchtdorf, Dieter F. "Come, Join With Us." Ensign, November 2013.

6. "Student Activities Policies." Du Lac: A Guide to Student Life. Accessed October 23, 2015.

7. Harris, Jeremy. "BYU "fundamentally Violates" Religious Liberty, Professor Says after Cancelling Speech." KUTV. October 6, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

8. Riess, Jana. "Religion Scholar Boycotts Conference At Mormon University." Huffington Post. October 9, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

9. Riess, Jana. "Religion Scholar Boycotts BYU Conference to Protest University Policy." Religion News Service. October 7, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

10. Cox, John. "Religion Scholar Boycotts BYU Conference to Protest University Policy." Washington Post. October 7, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

11. Zavadski, Katie. "Lose Your Faith, Get Expelled at BYU." The Daily Beast. March 31, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

12. Napier-Pearce, Jennifer. "Trib Talk: Faith Crisis or BYU Diploma?" The Salt Lake Tribune. March 23, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

13. Connolly, Caroline. "'FreeBYU' Pushes for Policy Change on Leaving LDS Church While Attending BYU." Fox13nowcom. November 20, 2014. Accessed October 23, 2015.

14. Zavadski, Katie. "Lose Your Faith, Get Expelled at BYU." The Daily Beast. March 31, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2015.

15. Leung, Diamond. "BYU Reinstates Brandon Davies." ESPN. August 31, 2011. Accessed October 23, 2015.

Picture credits (in order of appearance):
1. Pexels.com
2. Pixabay.com
3. Lds.org
4. "BYU Campus North" by Jaren Wilkey. Wikimedia Commons.

5 comments:

  1. People who violate their contract with God have a lot more to worry about than their contract with an affiliate of His Kingdom. They are held more accountable because of what they know by God in heaven, so it makes sense that they are held more accountable here.

    How about instead of fighting for people to be able to leave the Church with less consequences (discrimination laws wont save people from breaking their covenants), we talk about how to reclaim the lost sheep?

    Now THAT would be a good use of a blog post.

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    1. You've missed the point. What you suggest directly contradicts the words of Jesus, as pointed out in the blog post.

      And, honestly, changing this policy would reach out and show good will to some "lost sheep".

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  2. The question isn't whether BYU has the legal right to hold this policy, but whether it is moral and ethical to do so.

    How can you claim a moral high ground when you blame BYU for students who lie and defraud the university? They were forced to lie, right?

    Students who are honest with their bishops get expelled while those who lie get diplomas. Several BYU students have admitted anonymously to having secretly disavowed the Church, even though they still go through the motions in public.14 These students are not only lying, but they're partaking of the sacrament unworthily and robbing tithe payers. LDS students at BYU get discounted tuition, paid for by tithing funds. Students who fake their church activity ought to pay the higher, nonmember tuition rate, but under the current policy they aren't allowed to switch, so they choose to stay quiet rather than lose their diplomas.

    You're blaming BYU for this. You've lost all credibility. BYU is not rewarding the "whited sepulchres", BYU is being defrauded by students and you're blaming BYU. Incredible.

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    1. I think what the author of the post is trying to advocate is that students shouldn't be placed in a situation in which their only choices are to either lie or be expelled from school. No, BYU does not explicitly encourage disbelieving students to lie, but it does create an environment in which lying allows them to continue their studies and being honest gets them kicked out. The question isn't whether the student should lie about their beliefs and "defraud the university", but whether the university should force them to choose between the two.

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