Change Has Come to the BYU Honor Code

Note: For a brief summary of this article in the context of the American Bar Association’s recent decision regarding our complaint, please refer to our press release.

A little over two and a half years ago, a very small number of us organized FreeBYU and began advocating for the return of religious freedom to BYU after two decades of its absence. Our first step was creating a website in which “we ask that the Honor Code be updated to allow LDS students to change their personal religious beliefs without being expelled from the University and evicted from their housing” and terminated from their on-campus jobs. Since that time, our numbers and ambitions have grown but nearly everything we’ve done has been with that same simple goal in mind.

Now this goal might seem small on the surface. After all, can there really be that many students at a devoutly Mormon university who become non-Mormon in just a few years? Sure, these students are in the minority, but here’s the thing: it isn’t just about these students – it’s about all students who wear the white and blue. The fact of the matter is that no one at BYU can honestly evaluate their beliefs without incurring very serious risks to their livelihood and general well-being. If you aren’t free to get the wrong answer, you aren’t free to ask the question. Especially during a time in a young person’s life when they’re expected to learn and grow as much as they possibly can, to forbid them from some of the most fundamental kinds of questioning, searching, and pondering is to leave them spiritually and intellectually stunted. Some active Mormons even say that this kind of coercion is in line with “Satan’s plan” and that it conflicts with the extensive high-profile work that BYU and the LDS Church do to promote religious freedom around the world. For these reasons, we continue to believe that our goal of restoring religious freedom to BYU is an important one that virtually anyone can get behind.

It is thus with great pleasure that we announce that changes have recently been made to BYU’s Honor Code that constitute meaningful steps toward this goal! Now we aren’t ready to throw up a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet – there is still plenty of work to be done – but there is certainly reason to rejoice as well.

The changes (archived here) appeared on November 9, less than three weeks after the American Bar Association (ABA), who accredits BYU’s law school, acknowledged receipt of our 80-page complaint, after which they forwarded the complaint to BYU Law and asked for their response. As you can see below (click to enlarge), the changes are numerous and, while most of them are cosmetic, a few – which we’ll highlight shortly – are substantive.

HC Changes

There’s a lot going on here, but the essence of it can be distilled into four changes that all have two things in common:

  1. They all address issues raised in our complaint
  2. They all expand the spectrum of people who should qualify for an exception to BYU’s ecclesiastical endorsement requirement

The Ecclesiastical Endorsement Requirement

To understand the significance of that second point, one needs to realize that the ecclesiastical endorsement, i.e., the signed opinion of a student’s bishop that she is worthy to attend BYU, is of paramount importance. As we noted in our complaint to the ABA:

BYU Law also penalizes students who disaffiliate while attending by automatically withdrawing their ecclesiastical endorsement…

As an immediate consequence of having one’s ecclesiastical endorsement withdrawn for disaffiliation, BYU Law students are dismissed from BYU Law, fired from their university jobs, and evicted from their university-contracted homes. (p. 7)

Now this requirement has some little-known recent history that would be helpful context to have before continuing, so let’s quickly run through the basics. Until 2010, the section of the Honor Code shown above – the “Withdrawn Ecclesiastical Endorsement” section – was just a fraction of the length:

A student’s endorsement may be withdrawn at any time if the ecclesiastical leader determines that the student is no longer eligible for the endorsement. If an endorsement is withdrawn, no confessional information is exchanged without authorization from the student. Students without endorsements, except in unusual circumstances, must discontinue enrollment. Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints results in the withdrawal of the student’s endorsement. The decision to withdraw an endorsement may be appealed through the appropriate ecclesiastical leaders. Questions regarding withdrawn endorsements and reviews/appeals should be directed to the Honor Code Office. (2008-2009 Undergraduate Catalog, p. 16)

Basically, if you changed your religious affiliation or lost your ecclesiastical endorsement for any other reason (and couldn’t successfully appeal the loss to your stake president), you were on the chopping block – “except in unusual circumstances”. Those four words were the only hint that a student in this predicament could conceivably avert expulsion, and they weren’t exactly a beacon of hope. They offered no definition of “unusual circumstances” nor guidance on how one would attempt to convince school officials that they had such circumstances. Quite literally, these words could not have been any less clear or promising.

Then in 2010, this section was expanded into what you can see in the image above minus the underlined portions (see it more clearly here and here). The two new paragraphs introduced and explained an “Application for Exception” process through which a student could theoretically remain at the university without an ecclesiastical endorsement – a step in the right direction but a very small one. The student still needed to have undefined “unusual circumstances”, and they were required to let school officials “freely communicate with” – i.e., pry highly personal information from – their current and past bishops who they’ve likely confided in.

This version of the Honor Code section in question remained in force until just recently when it received its biggest overhaul yet. So without further ado, here are the four major changes that appeared, in order of increasing significance:

Change #1: Applicants can also now apply for an exception to the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement

From 2010 to March of last year, there was no way for a formerly LDS applicant to the university to be admitted, even if they just happened to be part of a family that converted to Mormonism when they were eight years old and then defected a year later. In our complaint to the ABA, we recounted the experience of a student who suffered dire hardships when BYU Law accepted him, instructed him to irreversibly withdraw his applications to other law schools (which he did), and later told him he couldn’t attend since he had converted to Catholicism (p. 12-13). We also wrote:

BYU Law violates ABA Standard 205 by precluding admission and retention of former LDS students because of their change in religious status…

In addition to current students, prospective students of different faiths that were formerly LDS are ineligible to receive an ecclesiastical endorsement, which is necessary for admission to BYU Law. Therefore, rather than merely preferring LDS students, BYU Law uses its admission policy to preclude admission of applicants… on the basis of religious affiliation. (p. 8, 10)

From 1998 to 2009, however, BYU stated in its General Admissions Policies (separate from the Honor Code) that former Mormons who wished to attend could “appeal based on extenuating circumstances” (or similar wording depending on the year). But then in 2010, this language was removed in favor of simply pronouncing such people to be “inadmissible until reinstated to full fellowship”. In 2009 (and presumably earlier), this appeals process had been described in detail in an “Admission of Excommunicated, Disfellowshipped or Disaffiliated Applicants” policy, which included an “Application for Exception”. Presumably, this policy was abolished in 2010 with the other change. Then in March of 2015, the Undergraduate Admissions Policy got its first update since 2003 and received an “Application for Exception” section, which introduced a process very similar to the former one for anyone who “lacks an ecclesiastical endorsement”. The November Honor Code update added the first mention of this process to that document, boosting its visibility. Finally, in the month following, the Admission Policy (archived here) was updated again (and now also applies to graduate students). In this update, the changes to the “Application for Exception” section were minor but a couple of them could be of consequence for some applicants. Mistakenly, the old “inadmissible” clause still appears on BYU’s Admissions page, so we’ve petitioned the Admissions Services office to fix it. UPDATE: They’ve thanked us for the suggestion and made the fix! See the old page here and the changes here.

Restoring the path for some former Mormons to attend as other non-Mormons do is of course a plus for religious freedom, but it’s a relatively minor one since this path is riddled with serious caveats, which we’ll summarize later.

Change #2: “Unusual” or “extenuating circumstances” are no longer required for current students to receive an exception

In our complaint, we wrote:

In order for an exception to the appeals process to be successful, a student “in unusual circumstances” must demonstrate “sufficiently compelling grounds to warrant an exception to the university’s ecclesiastical endorsement requirement.” No guidance is given on what would constitute either “sufficiently compelling grounds” or “unusual circumstances.” (p. 30)

In addition to being vague, this language was inherently exclusive – it implied that only a minority of those who needed an exception would be able to get one. Now, these words, with all their discouraging implications, have been removed altogether! Hopefully, this will correspond to a reduction in the filters that applications for exception are put through.

Change #3: Waiving one’s ecclesiastical privilege is no longer required for an exception

A large portion of the fear and uncertainty that BYU students who undergo faith transitions experience is due to “bishop roulette” – the fact that some bishops will handle a student’s faith crisis or disaffection much more compassionately and reasonably than others and thus the question of where a student’s bishop will fall on that spectrum is a matter of chance. Moreover, these bishops aren’t accountable to the university or its accreditors for how they wield the immense power they hold over students’ academic careers. This is a serious issue that our complaint addresses in multiple places. For example:

Under Standard 308, BYU Law is obligated to publish and adhere to written due process policies relative to good standing and graduation…

BYU Law fails to meet this Standard’s requirement because the persons who have veto power over law students’ good standing and graduation are not law school officials: rather, they are untrained, non-professional lay church leaders whose decisions are arbitrary, capricious, and unreviewable. (p. 25)

While bishops can still refuse or revoke an ecclesiastical endorsement for any reason, they’re no longer involved in what happens thereafter. School officials no longer “freely communicate with” a student’s “present and former ecclesiastical leaders” when the student applies for an exception to the endorsement requirement (unless the student asks them to); in fact, they don’t even review the bishop’s decision to withdraw or deny the endorsement. Of course this affords greater respect and protection for the personal information that students disclose in confidence to their trusted (or once-trusted, as the case may be) spiritual advisors. It also serves to reduce the influence that lay clergy members have over students’ academic and professional careers and should enhance the consistency of the decisions made regarding student retention as well as the extent to which these decisions remain within the confines of accreditation standards.

Change #4: “Observ[ing] the standards of the Honor Code” is now considered “sufficiently compelling grounds to warrant an exception to the university’s ecclesiastical endorsement requirement”

Recall from Change #2 above that our ABA complaint noted that “no guidance [was] given on what would constitute… ‘sufficiently compelling grounds'” in the previous version of the Honor Code. Well now we have some guidance! Though very brief, it’s potentially quite significant.

Note that “the standards of the Honor Code” differ depending on whether a student is LDS or non-LDS – LDS students are required to attend church and fulfill church callings while non-LDS students are not. But what about students who no longer consider themselves LDS? Does BYU still consider them LDS? A careful reading of the Honor Code reveals that the terms “non-LDS students” and “students who are not members of the [LDS Church]” are used interchangeably, implying that one would need to formally renounce their church membership in order to qualify as non-LDS for purposes of Honor Code enforcement. Thus it appears that in order to stop attending church, an LDS student would first need to disaffiliate, have his endorsement revoked (“disaffiliation from [the Church] automatically results in the withdrawal of the student’s ecclesiastical endorsement”), and then file an Application for Exception to hopefully remain in good Honor Code standing without an endorsement. Since this student kept the Honor Code (including church attendance) as an LDS member and will continue keeping it (without church attendance) while not a member, he should be able to qualify for an exception.

While it seems clear from a strict reading of the document that this outcome should be perfectly plausible in such a scenario, there’s no way to be certain without seeing it happen. Could this be merely a loophole in BYU’s true intentions? Perhaps, however, given how carefully this document has been written and revised over the years, one would think that its latest changes would mean exactly what they say. And if the document is to be viewed as a contract, BYU should of course honor its end of the deal. That said, one should make sure they understand the risks before testing these hypotheses.

Underlying every action we’ve taken at FreeBYU is our view that students who are keeping the Honor Code’s “standards of conduct” – the only ones non-LDS students are required to keep – don’t deserve to be expelled, evicted, and terminated for changing their religious affiliation; they should be able to finish their degrees even if it means paying the higher non-LDS tuition. In other words, students who are no longer LDS should only be held to the standards that other non-LDS students are held to. While this change doesn’t take us all the way there, it at least looks like a move in that direction.

What Now?

So there we have it – notable changes to the famous and infamous BYU Honor Code that bring the school a step or four closer to affording its students the very religious freedom that it rightly champions for individuals everywhere. Again, each of these changes have the function of expanding the spectrum of people who should be eligible for an exception to the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement. Together, they take this exception from something that seemed extremely difficult to qualify for to something that many of the students who experience faith transitions should theoretically qualify for.

While these changes indicate tangible progress, they don’t mark the end of the FreeBYU movement – there’s much progress yet to be made. At a minimum, the following problems and questions remain:

  • The Honor Codes of the other LDS schools – BYU-I, BYU-H, and LDSBC – haven’t received any of these changes (likely since they don’t have law schools – further evidence that the changes were prompted by the ABA investigation, which was serious enough that the ABA opted to advance it to the next stage back in April).
  • Students who lose their endorsements due to shifting religious beliefs are still guilty until proven innocent: “The student bears the burden of persuasion that he or she should be considered to be in good Honor Code standing”. In contrast, other students merely need to stay out of trouble and answer a list of published interview questions correctly. Why not simply have faith-transitioned students seek an endorsement from the BYU chaplain like other non-LDS students?
  • There’s no published process for determining whether a student “should be considered to be in good Honor Code standing”. What exactly do the Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Life require to be persuaded and where are these requirements documented?
  • What about students who don’t want to remove their names from church records but simply desire to cease “faking it” through obligatory attendance at church and fulfillment of callings. Will these students be required to either formally disaffiliate or continue LDS observance in order to qualify for an exception?
  • Will those who apply for an exception be at greater risk of Honor Code discipline? Some skeptics have pointed out that submitting an Application for Exception could become a triggering event for opening an Honor Code file on the student and subjecting them to surveillance, suspicion, and an unpredictable stream of interviews with BYU officials that has caused deep distress to other students in comparable scenarios.
  • If an applicant is a former Mormon, the president of BYU himself must approve her admission and he will do so “only in very limited cases”. Moreover, she might be expelled if she doesn’t rejoin the church within a year, so at that point, she would presumably be at the mercy of the Application for Exception process for current students if she didn’t return to the fold.

If you are a BYU student who no longer believes in Mormonism but has not lost their ecclesiastical endorsement, keep the following in mind:

  • Your safest bet is still to “fly under the radar” if possible. BYU’s preference still seems to be that ex-LDS students either feign belief and devotion or hit the road. If you’re not in your last year of school and can’t bear the thought of doing this for very long, here’s an idea: Just do it for the remainder of the current school year (or semester); then, once your grades have posted and you’ve locked in your credits, resign from the church, lose your endorsement, and apply for an exception. Then, if you don’t manage to get one, at least you haven’t wasted time and money on classes that you couldn’t finish and will have some time to get your ducks in a row for transferring elsewhere.
  • If you stop attending church while still an LDS member and then lose your endorsement later, you might not have any recourse since you need to be able to show, in part, that you “[have] observed the… Honor Code”, which requires members to attend. Perhaps this will depend on your circumstances and what you’re able to arrange with the reviewer(s) of your application (this is where you’d invoke the “other sufficiently compelling grounds” clause), but we wouldn’t bank on any hopes that they’ll be merciful.
  • If you disaffiliate and manage to get an exception, your tuition will double. Depending on your program and circumstances, BYU might no longer be your best bang for the buck. You may want to see what other options are available to help you make the most educated decision possible on where to finish your degree.

If you are a BYU student who eventually loses their ecclesiastical endorsement, the Application for Exception process is your only hope of not getting the boot! If you decide to give it a shot, here are some tips:

  • Get on it right away! You only have five business days from the time that you’re notified of having lost your endorsement. So, if at all possible, make it your top priority from Day 1 until you turn in the application.
  • Collect letters from as many LDS friends, roommates, ward members, bishopric members, quorum leaders, home teachees, professors, etc as you can and include them with your application. Solicit them from anyone who can vouch for your good character and Honor Code adherence (including church attendance and calling fulfillment if applicable). Now we can’t make any guarantees on the extent to which these statements will be read or factored into the decision on whether to grant you an exception. But since you bear “the burden of persuasion that [you] should be considered to be in good Honor Code standing”, if you want to do everything in your power that might help your case, this isn’t a bad idea.
  • Consider asking these people to include in their letters a note on the kindness and respect you show for others and their differing beliefs. Also consider adding a note yourself in which you commit to continue doing so and to not say or do things that may undermine the faith of others. The idea behind this is that there are reasons to believe that this concern is the primary motive behind these exclusionary policies. For example, there are some endorsement forms (like this one) that say “The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requests that ecclesiastical leaders not recommend… students who would undermine the faith of other BYU students”. Of course having full freedom of speech would be nice, but what’s the lesser of evils here? That’s for you to decide. This is a precautionary measure that may or may not be necessary, but it wouldn’t hurt your chances.
  • Find the form you need here (this one isn’t on BYU’s website, so check with the Dean of Students Office to make sure there isn’t a newer version). This form applies to both current students and applicants.
    • Current students: Turn it in to the Dean of Students Office at 3500 WSC
    • Undergrad applicants: Turn it in to the Executive Director of SAAS at B-202 ASB
    • Grad applicants: Turn it in to the dean of your college (or possibly to the Dean of Graduate Studies at 105 FPH)
  • Please let us know how it goes (or if you need any help). We currently have zero data on this and it would be great to start getting a sense for the success rate, what works, what doesn’t, etc. Keeping us in the loop will help those who come after you!
  • Good luck!

And so the work continues. Some of it will slightly change form in response to these changes, but as always, if you’d like to get involved, we can use your help, so please reach out! While we delivered our petition to BYU’s decision makers last year, signing and sharing it (and optionally commenting on it) is also still a great way to show your support, as is submitting a profile.

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