Brigham Young University is a private school that, while known for being operated and attended by Mormons, also admits students who are outside the faith. Why would they go there? Maybe because they want a good education, or they have a lot of good friends attending, or a family member promised to help them with tuition. Whatever the case, even if they don’t agree with Mormon theology, they’re agreeing to play by Mormon rules.
All students, for example, are required to abide by BYU’s “Honor Code” — that means no alcohol, coffee, or pre-marital sex. (Homosexual sex? Don’t even try.) You might recoil at all that, but again, this is a private school. They have every right to lay out the rules as they see fit.
As we pointed out many times last year, there was one serious problem with the rules on an ethical level. If you entered BYU as a Mormon, and you decided to leave the Church while you still attend the school (because you stopped believing in God), your life was practically over. You would be expelled and possibly evicted. Your transcript wouldn’t even be released in some cases, making it tougher to transfer. The pressure was there to keep you in the Mormon faith. Your options at that point were to lie to everybody… or be honest and suffer.
But if you’re not a Mormon and you changed your mind, no big deal. They didn’t care.
In other words, the policy was specifically singling out non-Mormon students if they left the Mormon Church.
A group called FreeBYU made the case last year that all of this went far beyond what a private religious school ought to be doing. They made the perfectly reasonable case that Mormons who changed their mind about religion should simply have to pay a higher tuition (like all non-Mormon students) and that would be the end of it.
This absurd double-standard was also being investigated by the American Bar Association since the ABA (which accredits law schools) requires non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and religion. Religious schools get some leeway here, but BYU’s policy of expelling Mormon students (including law students) who leave the faith went above and beyond what the ABA should be allowing, according to FreeBYU.
As it turns out, last November, BYU quietly changed its Honor Code. It happened with such little fanfare that news about the change didn’t come out until last week.
Jana Riess of Religion News Service explains:
Based on the changes it now seems that only students who formally resign their church membership will lose their status as BYU students, not those who harbor doubts or question their faith before a bishop. That’s an improvement. The door is also open to the university handling things on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a blanket no-exemptions policy; the language of students needing “unusual” or “extenuating” circumstances has been removed.
These aren’t huge changes, but they’re an improvement. (You can read a more detailed explanation of what BYU did right here.) The fact still remains: If you change your mind about religion while a student at BYU, you better hope your starting point wasn’t Mormonism.
Here’s where it gets interesting: BYU officials refuse to acknowledge that pressure from FreeBYU had anything to do with this. Said FreeBYU in a press release:
To most who have read and commented on the articles that have been released on these changes, it has seemed fairly self-evident that 1) the changes are relatively significant and 2) they were likely prompted by the ABA’s inquiry into our complaint. In its statements to journalists, however, the university has attempted to paint a different picture in both respects. In other words, it has downplayed both the significance of the changes and the instigating factors behind them. In so doing, it has downplayed the influence of our complaint to the ABA, perhaps in order to avoid any suspicions that it might not be impervious to external pressures.
… At the end of the day, what matters most is that positive changes have been made and can continue to be made to BYU’s Honor Code. But if such changes are to indeed occur in the future, attempting to understand what has likely prompted them in the past is a worthwhile endeavor. And if past changes are to be used to the benefit of the students they affect, the extent of their implications should be understood as well.
Riess shares that frustration:
… to ask me to believe that it’s not related at all to the challenges FreeBYU had been raising for quite some time now — including its first complaint to the ABA in May of last year — is just insulting.
It’s great that the university is beginning to soften the policy, but to do it so surreptitiously that even its own students weren’t aware of the change in the 2015-16 school year bespeaks an institution that is aching to save face. BYU doesn’t want to be seen as caving to criticism, no matter how justified that criticism.
There’s still work to be done. And the solution is so simple: BYU should just treat students who leave Mormonism the same way it treats non-Mormon students to begin with. No one deserves to be punished for the crime of thinking too critically. No one should feel bad about examining their own beliefs and then changing them accordingly.
For BYU to pressure students who no longer believe Mormon doctrine to remain in the faith means telling them “Stop asking tough questions about the faith.” It’s intellectually dishonest and it has no place at any university.