Bar association looks into discrimination complaint at BYU law school

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A student walks past the entrance of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo on February 16, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/George Frey
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BYU-COMPLAINT, originally transmitted on March 18, 2015.

A student walks past the entrance of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo on February 16, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/George Frey *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-BYU-COMPLAINT, originally transmitted on March 18, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) Brigham Young University’s law school accreditation has come under examination by the American Bar Association on a complaint that the school violated nondiscrimination policies, the director of a group of dissident students said.

Without ABA accreditation, students at the J. Reuben Clark School of Law would be ineligible for federal student aid and would not be able to apply for admission to state and local bar associations. The law school, like the university, is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

FreeBYU.org, the dissident group, complained to the ABA about the school’s practice of expelling students who leave the LDS faith or are living in same-sex relationships.

BYU admits students of different faiths. But those who are Mormon get lower tuition rates, and breaking away from the LDS religion before graduation is against an honor code signed by each Mormon student. So are same-sex relationships.

“We’d like them to follow the (ABA’s) accreditation standards,” said Brad Levin, a 2011 BYU Law graduate and director of the FreeBYU.org group. “The most obvious change would be in reforms to (BYU’s) honor code,” he added, stating that violations of the honor code are generally the grounds for a student’s expulsion.


RELATED STORY: Religion scholar boycotts BYU conference to protest university policy


Instead of kicking students out, Levin said, his group wants the school to revert to the policy that existed before 1993: Students who leave the LDS faith are simply charged nonmember tuition rates.

An aerial view of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Photo courtesy of Lunkwill at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An aerial view of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah

In response, BYU offered a statement: “The law school received a request for information from the ABA a couple of months ago and provided the ABA the information requested,” said Mary Hoagland, assistant dean for external relations at the law school. “We have been accredited by the ABA since 1974 and are confident that we continue to meet ABA standards.”

The ABA would not comment on pending inquiries at a given law school, a spokesman said.

ABA standards state that a law school cannot deny admission or retention of students on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.

But the ABA’s own rules state that faith-based law schools may adopt rules consistent with religious “affiliation or purpose.”

Levin argues that by not retaining students who left the LDS church, the BYU law school is violating the church’s long-held beliefs about religious liberty.

“In order to be consistent with its own advocacy of religious freedom internationally, they must preserve it at their own institution,” he said.

The discussion about BYU’s law school accreditation reflects society’s changing views, said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville. “It’s not that hard to find a middle course if we had the political will on each end of the continuum, but we don’t,” he said.

Other law schools face similar challenges. Provincial bar associations are challenging the establishment of a law school at Trinity Western University, an evangelical Christian school in Canada, over the university’s honor code that restricts sexual activity to heterosexual married couples. The school won a challenge in the British Columbia Supreme Court, but the province’s bar association, which voted against accrediting the law school, appealed the ruling.

(Mark A. Kellner is an RNS correspondent)

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  • Jay

    Nicely exposes the lie that the LDS Church has any real interest in “religious freedom.” They only want the right to discriminate against others. They certainly do not extend religious freedom to others.

  • Wander Woman

    Religious freedom does not mean the right to have your law school education subsidized by a church that you have rejected. BYU is heavily subsidized by the church. Even non-mormon students that pay higher tuition are not paying the full cost of their education. And what about the freedom to contract? BYU students sign a contract that if they are Mormon, they will abide by the standards of the Mormon church throughout their education. By rejecting the church while at BYU, they break that contract and thereby choose to pay the liquidated damages: expulsion. No one is expelled just for waivering in their faith so long as they continue to live the standards, and no one is expelled because they are “gay” as long as they don’t engage in activities that violate the standards.

  • David Nelson

    Isn’t the American Bar Association a private organization? Can it determine its own standards for accreditation? If the ABA determines that BYU discriminates on religious grounds because the university penalizes Mormon students who change their religious affiliation, isn’t the ABA within its rights to do so?

  • Wander Woman

    Yes, but the ABA holds itself out as protecting First Amendment rights of religious schools. The applicable ABA rule is Standard 205(c):

    This Standard does not prevent a law school from having a religious affiliation or purpose and adopting and applying policies of admission of students and employment of faculty and staff that directly relate to this affiliation or purpose so long as (1) notice of these policies has been given to applicants, students, faculty, and staff before their affi liation with the law school, and (2) the religious affiliation, purpose, or policies do not contravene any other Standard, including Standard 405(b) concerning academic freedom. These policies may provide a preference for persons adhering to the religious affi liation or purpose of the law school, but may not be applied to use admission policies or take other action to preclude admission of applicants or retention
    of students on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender,

  • Wander Woman

    sexual orientation, age, or disability. This Standard permits religious affi liation or purpose policies as to admission, retention, and employment only to the extent that these policies are protected by the United States Constitution. It is administered as though the First Amendment of the United States Constitution governs its application.

  • Johnathan

    No one is asking to be subsidized. They want to not be expelled and willingly offer to pay non-Mormon tuition, which is set 100% by the LDS church. If the LDS church doesn’t want to subsidize non-Mormons, then raise non-Mormon tuition–pretty simple.

    But why do they subsidize non-Mormon tuition to begin with? I think it’s fairly clear that there is a proselytizing motive i.e., to convert the Catholics, Baptists, Jews, and Muslims that are enticed by cheap tuition. But then they do not want to subsidize former Mormons because they probably won’t be converted. This is discrimination. It’s retaliating against those that leave and also targeting all other religions that those former Mormons might wish to join. It doesn’t fly at Notre Dame and it shouldn’t fly at BYU.

    If they want to subsidize potential Mormons (current Catholics etc.) and maintain accreditation and legal status, then they should also subsidize–and not expel!–former Mormons (also current Catholics…

  • Aaron Zaugg

    Lol, no one is asking to be subsidized while staying in a school that as a whole is subsidized? Wow, didn’t really think that through. The Church may choose to subsidize people who haven’t accepted their message, but that is not grounds to force them to subsidize those who actively reject their message. The two are not equivilent. Attending BYU and being subsidized by the church, on the other hand, are equivilent (even if members are more subsidized). I know critical thinking is tough, but keep trying 🙂

  • Johnathan

    No one is saying they can’t have that upfront preference for Mormons. If it’s easier to conceptualize, the discrimination isn’t about the disparate treatment between Mormons and nonmormons, but rather between nonmormons who have never been Mormons (Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist etc. etc.) and those nonmormons who were previously Mormon (but are now Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. etc.).

  • Sergio Enciso

    @Wander Woman

    Your logic is ridiculous! And again, remember that as a religious organization, your church gets a huge tax break from the federal government. If you are talking about being fair, you should also know that nothing is black and white as you’re taught by your religious organization.

  • Johnathan

    Nice job reading the whole thing there, your comment is irrelevant.

    As I said, they can raise the nonmormon tuition to even turn a profit on nonmormons–just like a public university can raise out-of-state tuition to further subsidize in-state students. Nonmormon Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists etc. are nonmormons. To distinguish between those nonmormons that have never been mormon and those nonmormons who were previously mormon is ridiculous. The motivation for such is either animus or (deceptive) religious recruitment, neither of which is permissible under the ABA accreditation standards that BYU Law, like Notre Dame Law, agrees to follow. I know reading is tough, but keep trying 🙂

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  • Torin93

    As long as other students of other faith are admitted your point is irrelevant. All they have do is change those LDS students that the church the higher rate.

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  • Jim

    @ Jay

    BYU exercises religious freedom by having its own, private, university. It affords other religions to do the same if they so choose. BYU also has rules and regulations people must follow to attend there. Other religious colleges and universities have their own policies as well. The LDS church does not ask schools of other faiths to change their policies to reflect LDS views. Therefore your your statement ‘Nicely exposes the lie that the LDS Church has any real interest in “religious freedom.”’ is invalid and untrue in and of itself. The LDS church encourages religious freedom, but if you want the LDS experience you must abide by its statutes.

  • Wander Woman

    “This is discrimination.” – Yes, and guess what? Discrimination by a religious institution is protected by the First Amendment, and the ABA rule by its own terms “is administered as though the First Amendment of the United States Constitution governs its application.” The First Amendment allows (as it should) BYU to tell students “You are welcome to study at this Mormon university unless you have once belonged to and since rejected Mormonism.” For the government (or the ABA by its own terms) to tell BYU that it must admit ex-Mormons would violate the First Amendment.