I spent eight years at BYU, earning what I like to call “the three degrees of glory.” After securing a Bachelor’s in Biology, I then spent another four years at BYU earning a Master of Public Administration and graduating Law School. I can only describe the first seven of those eight years as a fulness of joy: I immersed myself in what BYU has to offer! I played intramural sports (three champion shirts *cough*), faithfully attended devotionals, led programs in the Center for Service and Learning including BYU Jail Outreach, performed research, attended HFAC events, worked as an EFY counselor in the summers, organized study groups, fulfilled my student ward callings, volunteered as a tutor, worked as a Teacher’s Assistant: heck, I even competed in the finals of the Mr. BYU competition.
My final six dark months at BYU stand out in stark contrast to those happy years.
During my last year at BYU, I took courses in both the Master of Public Administration program and the Law School, as part of the JD/MPA joint degree program. At the time, I was a Teacher’s Assistant for Bioethics, and my old cell biology teacher was invited to give a lecture on sexual orientation science as part of our unit on homosexuality. I found the evidence he presented riveting, and began binge researching the stories of gay Mormons, as well as what LDS leaders and science had to say about the causes and cures for being gay. The stories of the suffering of gay Mormons brought me to tears. When I learned how much of their suffering had been caused by the teachings of LDS leaders, something snapped inside and I realized I was willing to fight for understanding of gay Mormons, even if that put me at risk. My training in law, public policy, and science, combined with my intense feeling of being called to do something about this issue. I wrote a book about it, and a few months later Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective sold out at the BYU Bookstore.
The burdens BYU places on those who change their faith
It was then that the danger became all too apparent. I first became aware of BYU’s practice of expelling LDS students who change their faith while I was still an undergrad. My older brother went to BYU as well, and during his last year there, he decided he no longer believed in the Church. Unlike many in his condition that continue to go through the motions by attending church and feigning belief, my brother decided to take a stand: and it cost him. His Bishop refused to sign his ecclesiastical endorsement, and because former LDS students are not eligible to receive one, my brother was expelled. The effect was devastating. The social cost and difficulty of starting over at a new university took a heavy toll on my brother, and set him back several years educationally.
With respect to credits, my situation was even more discouraging than his. Whereas many undergrads can transfer many of their credits to most other universities, graduate students are particularly vulnerable. I called MPA programs and law schools to see what I could transfer if I got expelled, and learned that only six of my MPA credits would transfer, and that the rule requiring two years of attendance at the law school one graduates from meant I would be set back by three academic semesters and two calendar years, if I still wanted to graduate from law school. Aware that I was writing the book, the law school dean pulled me aside to warn me that the law school could not protect me from the Honor Code Office. My Bishop, who I was open with about the book, threatened to hold a Disciplinary Council on me if I came out in support of same-sex marriage.
Graduation: at last
I knew from studying the Honor Code that I was in trouble. I spoke with many other LDS students similarly at the mercy of their ward Bishop: in their case, they either wanted to change religions, or leave it altogether. However, they knew their housing, on campus jobs, and degrees were in jeopardy if they spoke up. Most of them carefully concealed their doubts and checked the boxes needed to stay under the radar. As spring approached, my mood failed to bloom with the budding plants outside: I wouldn’t be in the clear until my degree posted, as good Honor Code standing is required for a degree to post. Graduation was thus a joyless experience for me, as I could not let myself relax until six weeks later when, on June 4th 2011, my degrees finally posted. The relief washed over me like a waterfall: at last, I was free.
Why I fight for religious freedom
I fight for religious freedom at BYU because I don’t want future BYU students to face the same exposure my brother, myself, and many of my friends have. Concentrating the power to terminate, evict, and expel a young college student into the hands of one man (the student’s Bishop) is not right. In 2013 I helped defend a student who was evicted, terminated, and expelled because of the Bishop’s perception of the correctness of the student’s religious belief: students like him are suffering under this policy right now.
I fight for religious freedom at BYU because I’m Mormon. As a people, we have felt the burdens others place on us for professing our faith. The sting of our past gives us a soft spot for those who face termination, scorn, rejection, and eviction because they express their beliefs. We should be the last to heap those burdens on others.
I fight for religious freedom at BYU because I’m a member of the LDS Church. As a Church, we champion religious freedom. I personally spoke with the delegates we invite from around the world to attend the annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU. I listened as Elder Perry promoted religious freedom to the world in his recent YouTube address. I studied the teachings of Joseph Smith, President Uchtdorf, and others on this crucial subject. I advocate the kind of religious freedom that was denied our founder, Joseph Smith, who when he was the same age as BYU students, professed his change of religious conscience to the world.
Most importantly, I fight for religious freedom at BYU because I know I’m not alone in believing we can do better. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with who learns about the policy at BYU agrees with the specific policy reform I propose: treat former LDS students the same as non-LDS students. This reform is administratively feasible: the BYU Board of Directors could change it tomorrow. This reform is merited: the fear and disruption it causes students is severe, needless, and contradicts our own teachings about religious freedom. Last, this reform is achievable: because it is in the best interests of students, BYU, and the Church.
Implementing this change protects students’ religious freedom, adds credibility to the Church by showing we practice what we preach, and enables BYU to live up to its mission statement: “greatly enlarge Brigham Young University’s influence in a world we wish to improve.”