Mormon students at Brigham Young University must pass an ecclesiastical endorsement to stay students at the school. This is a form that is completed by a student’s church leader verifying that they are living current Mormon standards and beliefs. If an endorsement gets revoked for any reason, the student has to take a mandatory year of absence from his or her students. Endorsements are revoked for various reasons, ranging from academic dishonesty to purported claims of vocally supporting LGBT rights or espousing feminist ideologies. Obviously the last two are incredibly troubling.
Non-Mormons can also attend school but they have a higher tuition cost. They also do not have to go through an ecclesiastical endorsement. While non-Mormons can attend school, if a Mormon student started attending school as a Mormon but later lost faith and wishes to leave the church, he or she will be subject to school discipline. This provides a problem for many students. The school accepts non-Mormons, but for some reason a Mormon loosing faith is grounds for punishment.
A group on campus called FreeBYU is pushing to have this policy changed. They want the school to accept a faith transition as long as the student promises to live by Honor Code standards and is willing to accept a higher tuition rate. This is a battle that FreeBYU was losing.
However, recent outside pressures have started to make changes. Earlier this year a national bar group began investigating the BYU law school for claims of religious discrimination. Since the law school is the pride and joy of BYU, this was troubling to administration. Also this year the school has received bad publicity for its mishandling of rape cases and for the Big 12 threatening to exclude BYU due to its homophobic policies.
Under all that pressure, the school finally folded, just a bit. A few days ago it came to light that the school had softened the portion of the Honor Code dealing with students who had lost faith. But how much has it softened? Should students be happy about this change?
Certainly it is a step in the positive direction, but before everybody starts celebrating, look at what the school is saying.
In their press release about the change the PR department was extremely unclear about how the process would go. According to the university, the policy will be handled on a case by case basis, which should immediately send up some red flags. Nowhere in the Honor Code does it give clear grounds on which the school would accept a faith transition. Instead of giving examples about possible cases where the student could earn an exemption (i.e. in cases of assault, extreme family pressures, etc.) it only provides the provision that students will need to talk to the administration.
So right off the bat, we can see that although the policy exists, there is nothing in the Honor Code holding the administration to honoring any set rules governing faith changes. They have to listen to the case, but nothing is holding them responsible for granting the student’s demands.
While the administration is generally level-headed, this policy can quickly turn into a trap for BYU students. Let’s run through a hypothetical scenario.
Say a student wants to get a faith exemption. He or she goes to the administration and petitions. Before going to the administration the student has no way to check precedent to see if their transition will be honored. In fact, there is nothing in the Honor Code itself that will give them a clue. They are flying blind.
If the administration honors their claim, they get a faith exemption. Story over. But what if the administration turns them down? Now they are in hot water. At a school where your education career relies on theological purity, they just admitted to administration that they do not believe in the church. This is dangerous enough, but what if the student’s reasoning is that they are actively involved in a gay relationship, or disagree with the church’s stand on LGBT rights, or a host of other hot topic items? They have now outed themselves as holding ideas that people have been punished for before at BYU.
It’s a game of Russian roulette and a dangerous one.
While this is a positive change at BYU, students who are hoping for a faith exemption need to hold off and be very careful. This is just the start of policy changes, and jumping into the deep water now is potentially dangerous for their education careers.
BYU is facing enormous pressures, which is good. When Mormon organizations face extreme outside pressure, things change for the better. For now the American Bar Association has dropped their case, but we have seen how outside pressure brings good changes. We are entering an era of change for the church, but students at BYU still need to be smart and careful about their actions at the school.
(This policy change does not currently affect BYU-I or BYU-H)