Religion scholar boycotts BYU conference to protest university policy

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Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, professor of sociology and global studies, and affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

(RNS) Brigham Young University has convened its annual International Law and Religion Symposium this week, featuring around 90 scholars, political leaders and jurists from more than three dozen nations.

But that number will not include Mark Juergensmeyer, a sociology professor from the University of California Santa Barbara who is a past president of the American Academy of Religion and the author of “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence,” along with many other books.

Juergensmeyer was scheduled to speak at the conference Wednesday (Oct. 7) but withdrew for reasons of conscience.


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On Saturday, he received an email from the Free BYU organization, which has for some time now been attempting to change the university’s policy toward students who enter the school as Mormons but then either lose or change their religion during their time there.

Free BYU contacted all of the speakers for the conference to make them aware of what the organization has called “BYU’s policy of terminating, evicting, and expelling LDS students who change their faith.”

Under the policy, students who enter the university as Mormons but then undergo a faith transition can be expelled, evicted from student housing and fired from on-campus jobs. (See more here.)

Free BYU asks that the university charge such students the full tuition rate that non-Mormons must render instead of the favorable rates that Mormons receive. Full-time LDS undergraduates pay about $2,500 a semester, while non-Mormons pay $5,000.

Elizabeth Clark, associate director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, told The Salt Lake Tribune that religious freedom extends to faith-based institutions, which have the right to determine their membership requirements.

Juergensmeyer was not aware of BYU’s policy until Saturday and says it prompted him to cancel his appearance.

“It was unfortunate that it was at the last minute, because I had agreed to talk at this conference last year and wasn’t able to, so we had to reschedule for this year,” Juergensmeyer said. And then, because of scheduling conflicts, he was only going to be able to be at the conference for one day.

“I do feel badly about the organizers making all those efforts to bring me there, only to have it end with my not coming. But I could not speak at a conference that is devoted in part to religious freedom, at an institution that seemed to be denying that freedom to its own students. I felt in an act of conscience I couldn’t take part in such an event.”

He contacted the university and made his regrets.

“One of the conference organizers expressed support for my decision as a matter of conscience, but she also gave a spirited defense of the university’s policy, in part for financial reasons, since so much of the tuition comes from the offerings of the church,” he explained.


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Juergensmeyer said he has not heard of a comparable policy at any other religious university in the United States but that he has not made a particular study of the question.

“I do want to make clear that I mean no disrespect to BYU, the faculty or the Mormon church,” he said.

“My field is not the religious freedom in higher education. But I would not participate in a religious freedom conference at any institution where this would be a policy.”

(RNS1-OCT26) Jana Riess is the author of the new book "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor." For use with RNS-RIESS-PROFILE, transmited Oct. 26, 2011. RNS photo courtesy DeChant-Hughes.

Jana Riess is the author of “The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less … Now with 68 Percent More Humor!” She writes the Flunking Sainthood blog at Religion News Service.) RNS photo courtesy of DeChant-Hughes

In an email exchange with BYU, Juergensmeyer wondered aloud about what would happen if the tables were turned:

“There may be legal acceptance of such discrimination, but it is discrimination all the same, and I suspect that if a university in a Muslim country were to expel a student who wanted to become a Mormon, BYU administrators would regard this as a violation of religious freedom. And they would be right.”

(Jana Riess is the author of “The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less … Now with 68 Percent More Humor!” She writes the Flunking Sainthood blog at Religion News Service.)

YS/MG END RIESS

  • Ed stafford

    Juergensmeyer is wrong that the BYU policy is unjust or improper discrimination. It is perfectly right, just, and fair for a faith-based institution to favor its adherents. The correct answer to his question about a Muslim educational institution denying benefits to a non-Muslim would be the same, perfectly valid as long as it is not taxpayers’ funded and a known policy at matriculation. Juergeneyer erred.

  • Larry

    It would be hypocritical of a person who speaks about religious liberties on college campuses to speak at a school which does not value such things. BYU values adherence to the LDS sect above the notion of treating people of all faiths fairly and equitably.

    It is deliberately discriminatory in that LDS students are subject to sanctions and penalties for expressing beliefs in a way students of other faiths attending are not. That is the textbook definition of discrimination. Singling out one group over another for different treatment.

    Nobody is saying BYU is breaking the law. What they are saying is that their policy is unjust, immoral and seeks to uphold ideas which are corrosive to respect for the student by the school.

  • Bernardo

    What happened to my comments? Strange blog this is. Anyway, these rules, I am sure, do not pertain to the football and basketball recruits. If they did, BYU’s recruitment would be in the “toilet”.

  • Larry

    Oh they do, but selectively so. Which makes sense since the policy is by definition discriminatory.

    “The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU”
    http://deadspin.com/5791461/the-truth-about-race-religion-and-the-honor-code-at-byu

    “BYU Honor Code Used to Harass Black Atheletes”
    http://religiondispatches.org/byu-honor-code-used-to-harass-black-atheletes/

  • Allen

    I read a comment from BYU that justified the policy. They said two things: that members have made covenants that non-members haven’t made and that religious freedom ought to allow them to set their own policies. The first justification is disturbing because many members at BYU made those covenants when they were eight years old, or as a result of significant pressure to serve a mission. The second justification shows that the church’s interest in religious freedom is focused more on the freedom of religious institutions than on individual freedom. The justifications of the policy are almost as disturbing as the policy itself. I am a BYU graduate. There are things to like and dislike there, but this policy is seriously wrong.

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