Religious Freedom

When people learn about the Free BYU movement, many understandably respond similarly to the following:

“Is BYU really violating the religious freedom of its students?  As a private institution funded by tithing money, BYU has every right to set its own rules for people who willingly choose to study there.  If people don’t like those rules, they can simply leave.  So why all the fuss?”

That’s a great question.  We definitely don’t dispute BYU’s legal right to set its own policies (with one exception, which will probably be discussed in a later post).  The big question is this: how does BYU’s policy affect the University, the LDS Church, and students at BYU?   The LDS Church and BYU are vocal advocates of religious freedom all over the world, yet BYU expels LDS students and has them evicted for changing their personal beliefs.  This is not only harmful for the students involved, but it also undermines the Church’s credibility in the fight for religious freedom.

Some background

As we are all likely aware, the LDS Church has been committed to religious freedom since its beginning.  In 1842, Joseph Smith penned a letter to John Wentworth in which he summarized the fundamental tenets of the restored Gospel.  Those fundamental tenets came to be known as the Articles of Faith.  Of all the amazing things Joseph might have included in that summary, it is notable that he made sure to include religious freedom:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. – The 11th Article of Faith

This makes sense in the context of the gospel as a whole.  We understand that agency is a foundational part of the Plan of Salvation.

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It makes sense that the LDS Church and BYU would both continue to promote religious freedom at home and abroad.  As recent as this past September, in fact, the Church released an official statement on religious freedom to underscore its importance (you can read the entire press release here).  The press release features a video of Apostle L. Tom Perry discussing the need to actively promote religious freedom. Elder Perry speaks of the need for self-determination, expression, and individual moral conscience:

In many countries, including the United States, religious freedom is slowly and dangerously eroding.  I’ve seen this erosion in matters of individual conscience, expression, and self-determination… Besides protecting our own rights, we must protect the rights of others, including the most vulnerable and the least popular.  We must show mutual respect for others, and treat all civilly.  No-one should be belittled for following their moral conscience. [emphasis added]

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Another video featured in September’s statement brings together many people, including Jeffrey R. Holland (also an Apostle and, incidentally, the 9th President of BYU).  Elder Holland makes a powerful case for the need to be involved in promoting the free exercise of religion:

In the twenty-first century, we cannot flee any longer.  We are going to have to fight for laws and circumstances and environments that allow the free exercise of religion and our franchise in it. [emphasis added]

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Thus it is important not to simply fight for religious freedom as an abstract principle – we must fight for laws, circumstances, and (notably) environments that allow for the free exercise of religion.  In the same video, Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, talks about some of the things that are threatening religious freedom.  She points out that at many universities, religious student organizations are being required to “have leaders that are non-believers, and these policies are forcing these religious student groups off-campus.”

We agree that this is alarming.  A university policy that makes it difficult for student religious groups to function on-campus is certainly an infringement of religious freedom (if not legally, then at least ethically).

Much more was discussed both in the Church’s official statement on religious freedom and in the accompanying videos.  Suffice it to say that religious freedom is a topic that matters a great deal to the LDS Church.

It matters enough, in fact, that for at least the last decade BYU has been actively involved in the promotion of religious liberty worldwide. For the past ten years, BYU’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies (ICLRS) has hosted a yearly symposium to “discuss principles of religious liberty and to explore mechanisms to better implement these principles“ (Visit the symposium’s website here).  BYU has to-date hosted over 900 visitors representing 120 countries worldwide.

Among those who attend the symposium are foreign leaders who have much to say about LDS missionary work in their countries.

BYU’s policy

HonorCodeNow that we’ve considered the position of the LDS Church and BYU, let’s have a look at BYU’s faith policies more closely.  As described elsewhere on this site, BYU allows students of all faiths to attend.  Nonmember students are free to pursue their beliefs, but LDS students who change their beliefs are expelled from the school and evicted from BYU-contract housing (which the vast majority of undergrads are required to live in).  This is true regardless of whether the Honor Code is being followed in every other way (see Overview for more details).

Most LDS students who come to BYU do so as strong, active believers in the doctrines of the LDS Church and thus have no problem signing the Honor Code – usually as teenagers – which forbids them from changing their personal beliefs about God while studying at BYU.

However, for many students, college represents a time to explore and discover their personal beliefs.  It may be the first time many students start to find their own faith instead of relying on the faith of their parents or their peers.  This is a process that everyone must eventually go through.

For those who do explore their faith and find that they believe differently, the process can be excruciating and traumatic.  Many students who undergo a change of faith experience fear, depression, anger, and deep hurt.  It is during this time that students would benefit most from Christlike love, compassion, and understanding from their church leaders.  Elder M. Russell Ballard described the attitude of love, esteem, and respect that we should have toward those with differing opinions:

[The Savior’s] deliberate use of Jews and Samaritans clearly teaches that we are all neighbors and that we should love, esteem, respect, and serve one another despite our deepest differences—including religious, political, and cultural differences.

 

That instruction continues today to be part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…

 

Parents, please teach your children and practice yourselves the principle of inclusion of others and not exclusion because of religious, political, or cultural differences. – (Doctrine of Inclusion, Elder M. Russell Ballard, October 2001 General Conference Talk)

It is unfortunate that, during this difficult time when students would benefit most from the principle of inclusion that Elder Ballard discusses, they are instead faced with institutionalized exclusion.  LDS students who change their religious beliefs publicly will have their lives turned inside-out.  They are dismissed from their school (no matter how close they are to graduation), they are evicted from their housing, and they lose their on-campus jobs – and all of this at a time when they are often suffering emotionally during a transition in faith and belief.

It is true that students can simply leave if they don’t like the rules.  But the rules themselves tend to create a coercive environment in which LDS students cannot honestly evaluate their personal faith without risking severe disruption to their lives.  Many students are forced to keep their religious beliefs a secret.

What does this mean for the Church and BYU?

As we saw, the LDS Church has been very active in promoting religious freedom.  The 11th Article of Faith states that “all [people]” should be allowed to worship “how, where, or what they may.”  Elder Perry spoke of the importance of self-determination, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.  Elder Holland, a former President of BYU, spoke of the need to fight for “laws, circumstances, and environments” that allow for the free exercise of religion (does BYU qualify?)  Elder Ballard spoke of the need to practice the principle of inclusion and not “exclusion because of religious, political, or cultural differences.”  BYU brings leaders from across the globe every year to promote religious freedom.  And hosts of apostles and prophets have spoken so often about the importance of religious freedom that we can’t include even a fraction of their thoughts in this post.

Remember that in its video the LDS Church provided an example of how religious freedom is being attacked in the United States: many universities have set policies that force student religious groups off-campus.  We agree that this is a good example of the violation of religious freedom.

But consider how BYU’s policy compares.  Far from forcing student groups to meet off-campus, BYU actively expels students and has them evicted for following their moral conscience (in the words of Elder Perry).

We understand that many factors must have been considered when BYU’s policies were created, and we are probably aware of only a fraction of them.  But consider that the LDS Church and BYU have set themselves up as moral examples of religious freedom while expelling and forcing the eviction of students who change their faith. This could be seen as hypocritical both at home and abroad.

In a recent article in The Student Review, Jeffrey Stott considers the global implications of BYU’s policy:

[BYU’s symposium on religious freedom] invites delegates from all over the world. For example, while volunteering there, I met a high-ranking Mexican government official who was in charge of deciding how many visas are granted to Mormon missionaries in Mexico. The Church paid for her travel, hotel rooms, food and entertainment for a week in Provo so that she could attend the symposium and therefore understand the importance of promoting religious freedom in her country.

 

Imagine if she, being a Catholic, was told that if an LDS student converted to Catholicism he’d be kicked out of BYU? – (Retrieved from http://thestudentreview.org/religious-freedom-at-byu/ on 11/17/2013)

In summary, it is definitely true that BYU has the legal right to set its own rules.  It is also true that students can choose to leave (although usually at great personal cost).  But both BYU and the LDS Church are committed to promoting religious freedom all over the world.  It is a fundamental principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, as we have been reminded, it is critically important now as religious liberties are eroding all around us.

Wouldn’t it make sense to take a second look at our policies here at home before we preach about religious freedom to the world?

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29 thoughts on “Religious Freedom

  • I understand your argument and intuition on why you believe this is wrong for BYU to expel students based on a change in beliefs. However, it doesn’t take long in the Book of Mormon before you read about how people who leave the church typically do not just leave, they turn against the Church. This is the reason why BYU has the rule that they do. It has nothing to do with “religious freedom” it’s because we shouldn’t have to deal with anti Mormons (who are mostly people who were once of our faith). Also, the Church is in charge of this university so I think we should be careful when we try to undermine their authority and refelation.

    • Sam,

      Elder Uchtdorf addressed this concern in his talk at the October General Conference – “In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.”

      Let me say, as an ex-Mormon, that the assertion that all ex-Mormons are anti-Mormons is categorically false. My girlfriend is a current, active LDS member, who fully supports my involvement in this cause. I love the Church and those who are in it. I simply don’t wish to be a part of it.

      Read through the profiles to see other stories of ex=Mormons who are not anti-Mormons. I assure you, going to school with ex-Mormons is nothing to be concerned about.

    • Sam,
      I agree that BYU and the Church can and should protect itself from anti-mormon attacks, especially within its institutions. However, if a Former LDS student were allowed to remain (such is the argument), they would not be allowed to bash the church. Bashing the church would fall into “behavior” which is and should be regulated under the Honor Code. A person’s religious thought should not be regulated unfairly against former LDS students. Therefore, allowing former LDS students to stay, as long as they don’t bash the church, would protect both the Church’s ability to protect itself and the Student’s ability to change religions.

    • Most anti-Mormons are not former Mormons, and nearly all former Mormons have nothing to do with the church afterwards. The popular saying that people don’t can’t leave the church alone simply isn’t true. Sorry to burst that bubble. Time and again I talk to old friends that brace themselves for the “anti” arguments that I’ll spew at them since I left the church, only to find out that, oh, I think it’s great that they are still in the church. This notion is really the only aggravating thing about the church that I still encounter.

    • Even though it has been a long time since this was posted ; I feel the need to reply to this comment. You say church shouldn’t have to deal with a anti mormons. That is your point of view. It is not a fact. The fact is that not all people who leave Mormonism are anti mormons. Also, the church deals with anti mormons and with former mormons whether they like it or not. This is the reason the church has come lately with so many official statements on polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, etc. This is one of the ways the church deal with former mormons and anti mormons. This is fact.

  • Totally ludicrous! BYU is a LDS institution and does have every right to establish policies, why? Because it’s a private institution and those who attend at it, have done voluntarily, committing to such policies. Students, faculty and admnistrative who do not wish to adhere, are in violation, period. That is the same in Muslim schools or Catholic Schools or Liberal Schools.

    Adherence to the policies (whichever they are) can be enforced by private institutions. I don’t understand even the reasoning employed by the author of this posting.

    • Alejandro,

      Thank you for your feedback. The question, of course, is not whether BYU has the legal right to set its policies. Of course it does.

      Rather, the goal is to help the University set policies that are consonant with its commitment to religious freedom.

      Please visit out FAQ page for more details about why the policy is at odds with the Church’s religious freedom doctrines.

    • Let’s look at it this way. If a Catholic student at BYU converts to be a Baptist BYU has no problem with it. A Jew at BYU can become a Catholic and BYU has no problem with it. A Lutheran at BYU can convert to any other religion (preferably LDS) and BYU does not care. However, An LDS student at BYU does not even need to convert to another belief, just express doubt in Mormonism and the church can take away everything they have accomplished. An LDS student at BYU can do everything by the book, obey every rule, never stray outside the policies, finish all the work for graduation, and then be denied graduation for converting to another religion or simply expressing serious doubt. A student can do everything needed for their degree and a bishop can take that away. Would BYU do that to any other student of a different religion? Not at all. Only if that student is LDS. This is not freedom of religion for the LDS person. This is coercion. To give every other person a freedom and deny it to others is hypocritical.

      For what it’s worth, many students at BYU do not want to attend BYU. My dad was a BYU professor, my friends dad’s were BYU professors, I have friends now who are professors, and I worked in Helaman Halls and the grounds crews and I heard time and again how parents force their kids to go to BYU. All expenses paid if they go to the Y. Nothing if their kid wants to go elsewhere. Many professors start out thinking BYU is great and have huge doubts by the time they leave. Many have put in so much time there that they feel trapped but they cannot be honest with other professors, their bishops or other church leaders, and they live the lie. Many students and professors have to put on the smiley face and agree with the ‘party line’ or lose everything. There exists a climate of fear and dishonesty. Just put in your time and leave. I know that this is not how it is for everyone there but I also know that many people at the Y are fearful of being honest. Just follow and shut your mouth.

  • The largest flaw in this argument is that it doesn’t address the fact that someone can leave the church and join a new one. A student can still be a student as long as they have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That is all that is required from a religious stand point. If someone leaves the church and doesn’t have a “religious affiliation” then they cannot get an ecclesiastical endorsement and therefore cannot be a student. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you aren’t affiliated with a religion, you cannot attend BYU. I have a friend that left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and joined a different church while she was at BYU and remained a student (although the tuition did go up) and graduated under a different religious affiliation. You need to get your facts straight and try to see every angle, not just the one you choose to see.

    • Scott,

      Please visit the Oberview page to learn why your assertion is incorrect. The honor code clearly states that disaffiliation results in automatic expulsion. It also states that former LDS students are not eligible for an endorsement, from any source.

      Cases where people have been allowed to continue are rare exceptions to the general policy.

  • This article puts way too much focus on the Church’s stance on religious freedom and not enough on the issue this site is making a big deal about. I’m unaware of any examples of this happening. It was said in the introduction, “…BYU expels LDS students and has them evicted for changing their personal beliefs.”

    • Jordan, the complete argument is made on the Overview page and on the FAQ page. Please visit them for more details.

      A small fraction of people who have been affected by this policy have submitted profiles in the “Profiles” section. Please see those for some examples. More profiles are forthcoming.

      Literally hundreds of students have been affected by this policy.

  • I believe that your argument is worthy of the time and consideration of BYU students, alumni, and faculty. After reading this article and putting a lot of thought and consideration into what I might say, this is my challenge to all who read this. Take a look at the mission and aims of BYU and also consider the 3-fold mission of the LDS Church. Now consider from the religious point of view, the doctrinal implications of what it means to have one’s records removed from the church…. How does keeping an LDS student who makes the HUGE decision to have their name removed from the records of the church fulfill the mission and aims of a BYU education?
    For those who are torn with distraught emotions, they (hopefully) will (or ought to) seek help from loving family, professors, bishops, friends, etc. This process is not something that happens in a week. It should take many months of consideration and prayer. And frankly, if a person is close enough to graduation to be severely affected by leaving BYU, they ought to use that remaining time to make their final decision. That way they can leave the church and BYU on at least a good note and in one fell swoop. Those who have a few years left can at least find another school that will better suit their ideals. Those who do not want to espouse themselves to what the church stands for, however, ideally would not want to graduate from its flagship university.

    • For those students who do choose to leave (which is, I agree, a major choice), is it BYU’s job to punish the student? If the student is treated poorly, does it increase or decrease the likelihood that he/she will return to the Church later in life?

      • It is not exactly a “punishment” if both parties have clearly agreed to the terms beforehand. It’s definitely be a consequence, but it is simply the fulfilling of a prearranged deal. BYU doesn’t kick people out for struggling in their activity. BYU doesn’t kick people out for major sins. There are plenty of people struggling with principle of like gay marriage or lifestyle choices like sex or pornography. But the point is that they are working toward getting better. They are striving toward an ideal. They are holding on to what they do know. The process of leaving the church should be one where people have exhausted all efforts to remain with it. I don’t believe that someone is going to have a “no fault divorce” mentality if they are wanting to remove their records from the church.

        • “BYU doesn’t kick people out for struggling in their activity. BYU doesn’t kick people out for major sins.”

          Well, technically not attending LDS Church services is enough to have your endorsement withdrawn according to the Honor Code. I once had a roommate whose bishop withdrew his endorsement because he skipped priesthood and Sunday school too often.

          A bishop can withdraw a student’s endorsement for any reason.

          “It is not exactly a “punishment” if both parties have clearly agreed to the terms beforehand. It’s definitely be a consequence, but it is simply the fulfilling of a prearranged deal.”

          That’s true. “Punishment” was the wrong word. But the question remains – are students more or less likely to leave with a favorable view of the church when they’ve been expelled and evicted for changing their beliefs?

          The deal is prearranged, but we’ve found that surprisingly few BYU students believe that this is actually in the Honor Code.

    • Hi Jake,

      I would wonder what you would say allowing other faiths on campus at all does to “fulfill the mission and aims of a BYU education,” whose mission is, according to the web site: “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.”

      Would it be purely for the opportunity to evangelize these groups?

      In any case, isn’t a disaffiliated person now a new potential convert or at least a future ally in the community?

      A question: How does kicking someone out for expressing spiritual doubt in a private interview with a bishop (you don’t have to leave the church to have your endorsement pulled) help fulfill the mission and aims of a BYU education?

  • Hi Caleb,

    I think you have left a couple facts off your website. The LDS church subsidizes the tuition of every LDS student attending the school, and does so to help make this level of education affordable to members of the church. BYU is a world class institution and is certainly not priced like one. There are many, many LDS members who would love to attend BYU but BYU simply doesn’t have enough room for them. If one of those spots is being taken by someone who no longer “believes” in the church, and in some cases, fights against it, is it really fair for that student to continue to ask the Church to subsidize their education? I don’t think so. I think that if the LDS Church is writing the checks, they can choose who to support. If you choose to no longer be a member of the church anymore, that is your choice, but you should also choose to go to school somewhere else.

    Also, I don’t think you ever explicitly say that every student at BYU has signed and agreed to follow the honor code. You allude to this several times, and you reference it several times by saying things like: “Even if they are living the honor code in every other way…” but breaking the honor code in just one way is still breaking it. Before you enrolled at BYU, you signed a document that said you would follow certain rules, and live your life a certain way. At some point, you changed your mind, again, that is totally your choice, but you are the one that broke the contract. Not BYU. Being removed from school because you violated an honor code that you signed and pledged to live shouldn’t come as a surprise because you signed it and pledged to live it.

    Keep your word, live up to your promises, and you’ll have no problems.

    • Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for your feedback.

      In fact, on the FAQ page we do address the fact that LDS students pay lower (subsidized) tuition. Nonmembers (who can attend the school, after all) pay higher tuition. We suggest that students who leave should start paying nonmember tuition like other nonmember students.

      We do also point out that students have signed the honor code. This is also on the FAQ page. Please have a look at our answers to your objections, and if you want to offer a rebuttal I’d be more than happy to keep the discussion going.

      Thanks!

      • The non-member tuition rate is still much, much less than a comparable quality private school and about a 3rd what out of state students (those who don’t receive a government subsidy) pay to attend The University of Utah. And again, you’re still asking a Church you don’t “believe in” to pay for your education.

        You haven’t addressed the point of “selectively breaking the one part of the honor code you don’t agree with.” I know you’re trying to get the honor code modified, but why not just go somewhere else?

        • Hi Ryan,

          If BYU is really concerned about its bottom-line, changing the policy makes even more sense. Presently, most students who change their faith do so secretly so that they don’t get expelled. Many have confided to me that they would be more than willing to pay nonmember tuition if they could. Changing the policy would increase tuition revenue from students who changed their faith.

          You wrote, “You haven’t addressed the point of “selectively breaking the one part of the honor code you don’t agree with.” I know you’re trying to get the honor code modified, but why not just go somewhere else?”

          To be clear, we are not suggesting that students shouldn’t be held to the contract that they signed as adults. LDS students who do change their beliefs shouldn’t be surprised when they are held to the contract that they signed before enrolling. We are, however, suggesting that it is in the best interest of BYU and the Church to change the contract so that it is in harmony with BYU’s commitment to religious and academic freedom.

          But why not go somewhere else? First, note that most LDS students who go to BYU sign the honor code as teenagers who don’t suspect that they’ll ever want to change their faith. Second, students who’ve had their endorsement withdrawn can’t transfer their credits, making it very difficult to continue school somewhere else. Finally, even in cases where credits can be transferred, moving to a different school is still sometimes impossible.

          For example, in my own experience, I was in danger of being expelled for failing to believe in Mormonism during the last semester of my MS degree. It works out that you can’t just “transfer” a completely written thesis to a new University. “Just transferring” for me would have meant abandoning my finished thesis, finding a new grad school with a relevant project, finding funding, and starting over.

          Your use of the words “just go somewhere else” is something of a misnomer. Usually there is no “just” about it.

        • Ryan,

          As a non-LDS BYU student, I pay double the tuition that members of the Church pay. With that, I agree with you, my education is much much cheaper than what I would have paid at other universities with the same rank for my program. I am grateful for BYU’s subsidized tuition. What FreeBYU is asking for is for others who are members of the church who are doubting their faith while at BYU to have the same opportunity that I have; an opportunity to finish up their degrees while justifiably not receiving the same subsidy that practicing members get.

          That’s only fair if you ask me. I’m a non-member (an atheist for that matter) and I get to earn my degree at BYU without being threatened with expulsion. Why shouldn’t they?

  • When I first saw this site, I had the reaction described above. However, I was unaware that former-LDS students are not able to obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, regardless of their current religious beliefs. As an LDS BYU student, I would have no problem with a classmate that chooses to discontinue being LDS remaining at BYU. They have the freedom to make their own choices and people leave the church for a variety of reasons. If they are living in such a way that they could get an ecclesiastical endorsement from a BYU chaplain or a leader of another church, that seems fine to me.

  • I think that the church claims that as long as you are striving earnestly striving to keep your covenants then you will not lose faith, or if you do lose faith you can gain it back by living the gospel. It thus makes sense to have it against the honor code to leave the church because leaving the church is breaking covenants and commandments.

    • Leaving the church is not breaking covenants and commandments. Other people in other religions follow the commandments contained in the bible. The mormon church has no complete ownership over commandments as explained in the bible. Also, those that already went through mormon temple ordinances, already made their covenants. Regular temple attendance in to “renew covenants”, not to “make the covenant again”‘ since the covenant was already done and recorded. Covenants will remain until the day The Lord himself says it is no more.

      The honor code is a set of rules that have changed over time and can be changed in the future. That is the reason women at BYU now can wear pants. The honor code is not a covenant or a commandment. Your comparison is like comparing apples and dinosaurs. No relationship whatsoever.

  • I think this website message is great and it should reach more people. Do you guys have a version of this website in Spanish? Please let me know. Thanks.

  • The idea that the LDS church has a right to withhold a studets degree is absurd. The school also represents the state in that the degree is also a legal document. BYU should suffer the impact of a class action lawsuit. Money and power are its real poo ursuit afterall. Hit them where it really hurts.

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