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.
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.
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]
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]
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.
Now 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?