Brigham Young University Graduates Campaign Against School's Treatment Of Ex-Mormons

03/19/2015 09:03 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015
REUTERS/George Frey

(RNS) A group of Brigham Young University graduates is strengthening its push for students who lose their Mormon faith to retain their spots at the private school.

Students do not have to be Mormon to attend the Provo university, but those who enter as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and later leave the faith face expulsion from BYU.

Activist group FreeBYU filed a complaint last week with the nonprofit accrediting board that evaluates the LDS church-owned school for the U.S. Department of Education. The filing alleges that the policy hinders academic and intellectual freedom at BYU, which is due for a seven-year accreditation review in April.

Organizer Brad Levin says many students who are “in the closet” about changing or leaving their faith must censor themselves in classrooms, online and in the wider BYU community. Such students should receive the same religious protection as non-Mormons, FreeBYU contends.

“They don’t know what’s going to put them in hot water,” Levin said. “They have to adjust their scholarship, their research or whatever they say.”

But BYU administrators believe the school complies with Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities standards.

“BYU is very open and clear about its mission as a religious institution,” BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in an email statement. “We also strive for academic excellence in an environment of intensive learning and rigor, where students and faculty on a daily basis are exploring, developing and creating ways to make our world a better place.”

Levin expects the Washington state-based commission to receive the mailed complaint this week.

In November, FreeBYU sent a certified letter to church President Thomas S. Monson urging LDS leaders to update the university’s honor code “to promote freedom of thought and freedom of religion.”

Levin and two other BYU graduates leading the campaign say they have seen Mormon students in a “faith crisis” lose their standing, school housing and campus jobs.

At the time of the letter, Jenkins acknowledged that Mormons who change faiths are treated differently from those who start classes as non-LDS students.

“Nonmembers have not made promises and commitments that a member of the church has,” she said in November. “A former Mormon who decides to leave the church distances themselves from those promises and commitments. The result is that they are not eligible to attend BYU.”

The standard does not apply to someone who struggles with faith issues for a short time but remains in the church, Jenkins said.

The university’s honor code maintains that for Mormon students at the Provo school, “excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the loss of good honor code standing.”

It adds: “Disaffiliation is defined for purposes of this policy as removal of an individual’s name from the official records of the church.”

Levin says the policy violates the accrediting board’s standard that students are free to “examine thought, reason and perspectives of truth” and “share their reasoned conclusions with others.” He believes the complaint will highlight a violation that will affect BYU’s accreditation.

Commission officers did not respond to requests for comment.

FreeBYU contends that bishops are inconsistent in issuing honor code “ecclesiastical endorsements.”

The accreditation board requires that student rights and responsibilities “are clearly stated, readily available and administered in a fair and consistent manner.” Levin believes BYU’s policies violate that standard because honor code signoffs are up to each individual LDS bishop’s judgment.

Universities may hold students to a particular “personal, social or religious philosophy,” the Northwest Commission policy says, but must allow them to be “intellectually free to examine thought, reason and perspectives of truth.”

FreeBYU contends students who resign from the LDS church should still qualify for an ecclesiastical endorsement from the BYU chaplain or their new religious leader and pay the non-LDS tuition, which is double the LDS undergraduate cost of $2,500 a semester.

If they abide by the honor code’s other standards of no alcohol, smoking, coffee, tea or premarital sex, they should be allowed to remain at the church-owned school, Levin says.

Levin, who graduated in 2011 with a law degree and master’s in public administration, began questioning his Mormon beliefs while still at school but waited until after graduation to share his doubt. His older brother was expelled for revealing his questions.

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