LDS statements again at odds with BYU’s religious freedom policy

Last month, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published the “Fourth in a five-part series on why faith matters to society” entitled In Honor of Human Rights:

A few months earlier, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also published “I Knew What I Had to Do,” a story about a young man who was kicked out of school for distributing LDS pamphlets:

Since both are relatively short, I will reproduce them here: followed by commentary in blue that applies their reasoning to the issue of religious freedom at BYU. This is an opinion post that does not necessarily represent the position of the organization.

In Honor of Human Rights- applied to religious freedom at BYU

“It’s a great affirmation of the possibility of overcoming conflict through reason and good will.” — Mary Ann Glendon[1]

Sixty-six years ago a document graced the world that set new horizons for human relations. It is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was the first global expression of its kind.

Leaders from different nations, cultures, religions and political systems came together to establish standards of humaneness that apply to everyone, everywhere. The opening lines proclaim that “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” are the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”[2]

Importantly, these standards are limited to actual people: members of the human family. This is consistent with other statements by LDS authorities, which consistently affirm the importance of the religious freedom of God’s children: again, actual human persons. Hold on to this point, as we’ll return to it below. 

Built in the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust, this declaration provided a collective aspiration to develop “friendly relations between nations”[3] and to bring out the highest and best in our common civilization here on earth.

Why we should care about human rights

Every person, regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality, possesses fundamental rights simply by being human. Agreed. Though obvious, it is important to point out that LDS BYU students whose religious consciences change while at BYU are humans too. Which means that that they possess these fundamental rights merely by virtue of being human- more on that as well in a moment. They include the right to life, liberty, security, equal protection of the law and the freedom of thought, speech and religion.

These human rights protect the weak from the abuses of tyranny. They act as a buffer and arbiter between the lone individual and the concentration of power. LDS BYU students whose religious consciences change usually fit this description. Because publicizing their change in religious conscience risks their education, housing, and employment, they have to hide their conversion. They can’t support each other since those in the same condition are similarly closeted. The power to decide whether they remain as a student is concentrated in BYU: specifically, the Honor Code Office has the power to unilaterally expel an LDS BYU student for publicizing her change in religious conscience.

Additionally, it would not be uncommon for that student to be the only one in her ward to be in such a position. A single man, her bishop, holds the key to whether she can continue to be a BYU student. In that case, she is very literally a weak, lone individual facing a concentration of power: the hands of the local pastor for the faith she no longer believes in. These norms and principles defy the natural tendency to dominate one another. Human rights help us move beyond the harmful idea that might makes right. Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story about BYU’s policy of expelling and evicting LDS BYU students who change their faith. The most common response was some version of “BYU is a private institution- it can do whatever it wants.” Here, the LDS Church explicitly decries this “might makes right” argument. It has no place in the discussion about what the LDS Church should do to protect and honor the religious freedom of all BYU students.

The strength of the universal declaration lies not so much in enforcing these rights but in its role as a teacher that shapes ideals and molds incentives toward the common good. Human rights bolster our obligations toward one another and give dignity to how we work, worship, interact with our communities and raise our families. Accordingly, human rights complement our civic and democratic engagement. Rights without relationships and responsibilities can only go so far.

Agreed. The human right of religious freedom can only go so far unless people and institutions- including BYU and Mormons- live up to their responsibility to honor the same.

Keeping the faith, in private and in public

Article 18 of the declaration is brief but powerful: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[4]

This is the most applicable part of the whole article. Article 18 explicitly highlights the very aspects of religious freedom that are currently lacking at BYU- (1) freedom to change his religion or belief, and (2) freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. It is precisely the freedom to manifest one’s religion (in this case, one’s departure from LDS belief) that is burdened. Mormon Stories Podcast recently published 507: Free BYU — Religious Freedom and Faith Transition at Church Schools, which includes an interview with a Mormon-turned-Muslim student named Jeff. Jeff explained how his freedom to proclaim his conversion to Islam, and to practice Islam (e.g. via five daily prayers), is burdened by having to hide his religion in order to avoid being expelled from BYU and evicted from his housing

Freedom of religion is not just some abstract concept that floats in the minds of lawyers and legislators. Rather, it moves and grows in the common soil of our everyday lives. Agreed. This is especially important in the context of religious freedom at BYU. The reason that BYU can expel a student merely for changing her religion is because the Constitution recognizes a right to religious freedom for- and this is important- religious institutions. BYU is not a human, and thus is not entitled to religious freedom via a human rights approach. It is, however, privileged to discriminate on religious grounds where a comparable organization (say, the University of Utah) would not: precisely because of that abstract concept that floats in the minds of lawyers and legislators that an organization is a person entitled to religious freedom under the First Amendment. 

In their statements, the LDS church focuses instead on the religious freedom of actual members of the human family, and how that freedom “moves and grows in the common soil of our everyday lives.” In practice, however, at least at BYU- they burden the religious freedom of humans by virtue of the religious freedom granted to institutions. Many are convinced that the BYU Board can match what is practiced by BYU, to what is preached by LDS leaders.

We take our beliefs everywhere we go. They form who we are and drive us to share them with others. We want to influence our communities and the world around us. In this way, our private and public lives are intertwined. It is a paltry freedom indeed that allows us to practice and voice our faith in the privacy of our own home or church, but not in the open exchange of the public square.

This is precisely the environment imposed on LDS students at BYU. Many of them have experienced a change in religious conscience, and practice their new faith: but privately, out of fear of expulsion and eviction. It is in the movement and growth of the common soil of their everyday lives that these students suffer most- as evidenced by their compelling accounts. Having to hide one’s conversion from roommates and friends, having to avoid statements in class that might betray that conversion, hollowly going through the motions of faithful LDS observance- is a heavy burden indeed.

The legacy of the universal declaration

The establishment of human rights is an achievement to be proud of. They play a vital role in managing the conflicts and differences so prevalent in our pluralistic world. Nowhere are the conflicts of pluralism more poignant than inside religious organizations. The establishment of human rights can help the BYU Board manage religious differences at BYU in a way that ennobles human existence, inspires decency, and urges accountability. They help keep us on the same civilizational page. The aims they promote ennoble human existence, inspire decency and urge accountability.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon explained: “Practically every constitution in the world that has a bill of rights is modelled or influenced in some way by that core of principles that were deemed to be fundamental” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[5] Legal frameworks and moral norms of countries around the world have drawn from this document. It continues to put international relations on a more equal footing.

The world is far from perfect in honoring human rights. Injustices and atrocities still occur, but the universal declaration makes it possible to prevent, contain or diminish them. Like all things worth keeping, human rights will forever require our faith and vigilance.

Including the vigilance of faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in honoring human rights in their own institutions. If BYU administrators and the members of the BYU Board of Trustees don’t honor the religious freedom of LDS BYU students whose religious consciences change while at BYU, who will?

I Knew What I Had to Do- applied to religious freedom at BYU

I go to a school run by one of the churches in my country. Some time back I was chosen by my classmates to be our class counselor. One day as I was planning what to teach, I came across a Church booklet about the law of chastity. I decided to teach my classmates about chastity and asked the full-time missionaries for booklets, which I gave out during the lesson.
After my lesson, many students wanted to know more about the Church, so I taught them and gave them more Church materials, including the Book of Mormon. I did not know that this was not approved by the head teacher.
One day she called me to her office and asked me which church I went to. When I told her, she asked why I was giving out the Church’s “Bible” to the students. I told her that I gave them only to those who asked for them.
After a long talk about the Church, in which she made it clear that she believed it was not the Church of God, she told me, “I know that you have no parents, but I am very sorry—you will have to leave my school because you will convert many of my good students to that church of yours.” She told me to choose between the Church and my education.

In many ways, this is the message BYU’s Honor Code delivers to LDS BYU students whose religious consciences change. “We don’t believe your religious conscience is right, and you have to choose: either hide your religion and complete your education, or expose it and be expelled.” This is not a choice the BYU Board needs to force upon its students. Instead, it is within their power to say through the Honor Code, “We honor religious freedom as a human right, and allow all men and women to worship how, where, or what they may. As long as you observe the Honor Code as do all BYU students, you can declare your change in faith and remain here in good standing.” 

She called an assembly and told the school that I was not allowed in school anymore because I belonged to the Mormon Church and that any other students following me would have to leave.

After the assembly, she asked what I had decided: my church or my education. I felt the Spirit telling me to stand for what I know: that the Lord has restored His true Church. I shared my testimony with her as I was leaving. She told me to return the following week to pick up a letter showing that I no longer went to the school.
When I came the following week, she had changed her mind! She wasn’t making me leave the school anymore. I was very happy, mostly because I had stood for what I knew to be true.

Sadly, many such stories at BYU do not have such a happy ending. Recently, one student boldly stood for what he knew, and received “a letter showing that [he] no longer went to the school.” It looked like this:

Dear student,

Bishop __ has informed the Honor Code Office that your ecclesiastical endorsement has been withdrawn. Since university policy requires all students to have a current endorsement, we have placed a hold on your registration, graduation, and diploma until you are able to qualify for a new one. Effective immediately, you are no longer eligible to attend daytime or evening classes, to register for other courses, to graduate from BYU, to work for the university, or to reside in BYU contract housing. You cannot enroll in or be enrolled in any BYU course that could apply to graduation, including but not limited to Independent Study courses, until you are returned to good standing. Please note that you may not represent the university or participate in any university programs such as Study Abroad, academic internships, performing groups, etc. A hold has been placed on your record which will prevent you from being considered for admission to any Church Educational System school until you are returned to good Honor Code standing. Good Honor Code standing includes a valid, current ecclesiastical endorsement.

The Honor Code Office will work with Discontinuance to remove your classes. If you have any questions please call the Honor Code Office. If you are currently working on past incomplete grade contracts please notify the honor Code Office immediately. When you are ready to return to the university, you must work closely with the Admissions Office, A-153 ASB, (801) 422-2507, regarding readmission requirements.

During at least the next twelve months, Bishop ___’s clearance must be obtained before any other bishop can endorse you. Your Bishop must verbally notify the Honor Code Office as soon as your endorsement has been reinstated. Also be aware that you must stay in contact with the Admissions Office in A-153 ASB (422-2507) regarding readmission requirements if you are away for a full semester. Because the ecclesiastical interview is confidential, any questions regarding your church standing must be resolved with your ecclesiastical leaders. The withdrawal of your endorsement is independent of any investigation or action that may be taken by the Honor Code Office.

If you have any questions about the withdrawal of your endorsement, please contact your bishop and/or your stake president. Your classes will be discontinued immediately.


Larry Neal, Honor Code Office Director

This experience taught me to always stand for what we know to be true. The Lord will always be there for us. If I had denied the Church, the students would have said that what I was teaching them was not true, but now they know that I know the truth.

We can do a better job of honoring the religious freedom we proclaim. If you feel to help erase the inconsistency between the LDS Church’s position on religious freedom and the current Honor Code, please- get involved


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