As many of you may know, BYU students are not permitted to have beards. Until this week, only two exceptions were formally recognized: a medical condition or participation in a theatrical performance. Now, BYU (and only BYU Provo- not others within the Church Educational System) is recognizing a third- “religious reasons.”
Making a religious exception for wearing beards is one way to honor the religious freedom of God’s children. Like FreeBYU’s request that BYU treat ex-LDS students the same as non-LDS students, this change was (1) administratively feasible, (2) requested by BYU students themselves, and (3) more consistent with LDS teachings about the importance and meaning of religious freedom.
There is one important difference, however, in addition to these similarities: namely, that the students are not free to request the ex-LDS=non-LDS change. Those requesting that change are very likely to be the same students who stand to benefit from the Honor Code update: LDS students whose religious consciences have changed. Because those students risk their housing, education, and employment by exposing their religious change, it is not safe for them to request the Honor Code change directly.
The FreeBYU organization plays an important role by stepping in to fill this gap. Since it represents current students, alumni, and similar allies, it can request this change on behalf of those vulnerable students. Paul V. Johnson, the Church Education System Commissioner, has acknowledged receipt of FreeBYU’s request:
It is possible that FreeBYU’s proposed honor code change is currently in front of the same people who just added the “religious reasons” exception to the Beard policy. Now is their opportunity to make this overdue course correction for the right reasons. If the decision makers wait too long (i.e. once the national spotlight turns on this disparity as it did on the beard policy), it becomes difficult to claim the reform was not caused by negative press attention.