Religion scholar Mark Juergensmeyer boycotts BYU conference to protest university policy; cites religious freedom

2 FreeBYU-Web-LogoThis week, Brigham Young University has convened its annual International Law and Religion Symposium, featuring around ninety scholars, political leaders and jurists from more than three dozen different nations.

However, that number will not include Mark Juergensmeyer, a distinguished professor from UC 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 today, but withdrew for reasons of conscience.

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 has requested that these students instead simply lose the favorable tuition rate that they have received as LDS Church members and instead pay the full tuition that non-Mormons must render from the outset.

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 in an interview today. 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 right away 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.

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 clarified.

“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.”

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."



  1. I agree with his decision to not participate at the conference. He made a good point that if a student in a predominant Muslim country was expelled for converting to the LDS church, the church would cry out for religious freedom. We need to be consistent on this issue.

  2. I want to have my three tiered Mormon Wedding Cake and eat it too…

  3. I don’t think there is exists an example of a muslim student that has been expelled from a muslim-owned school for joining the church in response to which the Church has criticized the muslim-owned school. If you can point out the case, I would be happy to consider it.

  4. The only surefire way that the Mormon church changes is when they are embarrassed and boycotted by those from whom they want respect:

    1- The US government didn’t let them become a state until they renounced polygamy.
    2- Stanford University refused to play BYU in collegiate athletics until they dropped the priesthood and temple ban of Africans.
    3- And now, a distinguished professor on religious issues won’t speak at a BYU conference of religious freedom out of moral conscience. Ouch!

    Change happens, despite the white male gerontocracy leading this church.

  5. Likewise, I’m outraged that Mormons won’t let me make pagan sacrifices in their chapels.

    Religious freedom, lest we forget, is all about doing whatever you want on other people’s property.

  6. As with a lot of stories, this isn’t all the facts. BYU has an honor code. The honor code is agreed on by each student before entering BYU as a student. The agreement says if the student leaves the faith for any reason (excommunication, apostasy, or ask for name removal from church records) BYU will expel the student. The expulsion occurs because the student violated the mutually agreed upon honor code.

    Regarding Freedom of Religion or free agency. The LDS church teaches this doctrine more than any church I know. Article of Faith #11… 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.

    Notice the last line….we allow all men the same privilege.

  7. So you’re saying that the fact that all the students agree to this honor code is justification for the Church to expel students. You have a point- as with any contract, it is absolutely justified- but that cannot make up for the fact that the practice is still immoral.
    Effectively the Church is saying that someone who requests their records be removed (something entirely different from being excommunicated) is incapable of living by the standards that non-LDS students agree to live by.
    A better system would be to give those who decide to leave the Church the opportunity to agree to the honor code that non-LDS students are required to live by.
    It’s time for the Church to acknowledge that the desire to sin isn’t the only reason people are leaving the Church these days.

  8. Your observation is interesting…the BYU honor code is absolutely justified…yet immoral. I’m sure that could be an essay within itself.

    The principle here is the student knew before hand going into this…he agreed. The principle is not religious freedom. The expelled student has all the religious freedom he wants or needs. His collegiate education is another thing…it will come from another school most likely.

    BYU does need to conform, the student does. And when the student does not conform and rebels…he is now a law into himself. Another characteristic of Satan…And a theme of this website.

  9. Actually, the argument seems to be that enforcement of the code is justifiable, but it’s placement in the code is immoral. Unless you’d like to argue that BYU has no obligation to make an honor code that conforms, among other things, to religious liberty principles?

  10. Let me see if I understand your argument correctly.

    Suppose I purchase some software, and after eagerly ripping off the wrapper I notice that it says, by opening the package, I agree to sacrifice my first-born if I ever buy or use any other software.

    Well, I’ve already opened the wrapper, so I install and launch the software and it turns out to be horribly unusable; amateurish and full of mistakes. I then put the CD through the shredder and go purchase some software that actually works.

    According to you, I’m “honor bound” to sacrifice my first born because I “broke” the contract on the wrapper. Is that correct?

    It’s remarkable that Mormons would try to defend BYU by arguing that it’s okay to deprive someone of their agency if they first agree (through a life of youthful programming) to have their agency stripped from them; as if codifying unethical behavior in a legal contract makes BYU’s actions any less reprehensible.

  11. Or, in the case of Mormonism, it’s about doing whatever you want to other people who happen to be on your property.

  12. I don’t think the argument is that students who agree to the honor code shouldn’t have to honor it. The argument is that it’s wrong to require that students agree to that aspect of the honor code; i.e., that if they leave the church they have to leave BYU. A change in policy is what’s being requested. And to me it sounds fair. There are Catholic students at BYU who live by the honor code. If an LDS student decides to convert to Catholicism while at BYU, they shouldn’t be expelled. They should be treated the same as the other Catholic students there. Please explain why that’s not the right thing to do.

  13. Perfect example of Mormon double-speak and hypocrisy. It can’t be discrimination if Mormons do it. No wonder most people think this church is just a cult.

  14. The comment above is in reply to HarryStamper’s disingenuous defense of Brigham Young University’s policy of expelling students who convert to another religion even though they proclaim their belief in religious freedom.

  15. I’m not familiar with this honor code – the ones that I’ve been party to dealt with honesty, integrity, and forthrightness. These traits people of any faith would desire to be upheld. How this “honor code” at BYU deals with such traits is unknown to me. However, I wonder if the situation was reversed – a Catholic student at BYU (paying non-LDS member tuition) was to convert to the Mormon faith – would the university eject them for violating the code? I somehow doubt it.

    My wager is this is specifically about financial matters, and the Free BYU group seems to address this by agreeing to the non-member tuition rate as a consequence of their conversion.

  16. A false analogy in so many ways.

    Not the least of which: it’s no secret that people who apostatize from the LDS Church are not invited to attend BYU.

    Also, a contract to perform an illegal act is void, so your firstborn is perfectly safe from child-sacrificing software vendors (thank goodness!).

  17. Debbie Snowcroft: “Or, in the case of Mormonism, it’s about doing whatever you want to other people who happen to be on your property.”

    Hmm. I guess that explains why they drugged me, stole my kidneys, and left me in a tub of ice that time I wandered into a Mormon church.

    Seriously, though, private organizations are allowed to ask people to leave if they do not obey their rules.

    And unless the Mormon Church is now an recognized as an independent state, “religious freedom” is not an applicable concept. Private organizations, which — under the rule of law — do not enforce their rules with violence, are quite distinct from states, which do.

    But since you object to private organizations having any control over their property, I’ll assume you have no objection if some Norse priests, Vedic Brahmins, and myself demonstrate the finer points of the Horse Sacrifice in your living room.

    Speaking of which, do you have a drop cloth I can borrow?

  18. BYU is certainly legally entitled to act badly and to use all legally allowed methods of coercion and intimidation.

    Similarly, I could require anyone visiting my house (even if they were paying for the privilege) to sign an “honor code” in which they promise to never disagree with me. And if a visitor then chose to disagree with me, I’d be within my legal rights to take away their hors d’oeuvres and their glass of wine, and ceremoniously throw them out, and call the police if they didn’t leave immediately.

    But I would be a jerk for acting that way.

    You see, dear Johnathan, just because a person, or an institution, has the legal right to be a jerk doesn’t mean they *should* be a jerk, or that being a jerk is ethically/morally okay.

  19. Johnathan wrote “…. a contract to perform an illegal act….”

    If it makes you feel better, Johnathan, change it from “sacrifice your first born” to “sign over your house.”

    You see, the issue isn’t one of legalities. The issue is one of good behavior and respect for agency.

  20. Debbie Snowcroft: “BYU is certainly legally entitled to act badly and to use all legally allowed methods of coercion and intimidation.”

    Then why the reference to law? Why the legal terminology?

    The post concerns the “International Law and Religion Symposium”, and “Freedom of Religion” means freedom from State interference.

    The “Free BYU” movement has chosen to appropriate legal terminology. But you’re saying we can’t discuss the issue in legal terms?

    You want to deprive an entire religious community (Mormons) of control of their university (BYU), and transfer that control to a tiny cadre of ex-mormons, some of them anti-mormons. This is religious freedom?

  21. You want to deprive an entire religious community (Mormons) of control of their university (BYU), and transfer that control to a tiny cadre of ex-mormons, some of them anti-mormons. This is religious freedom?

  22. Debbie Snowcroft: “You see, the issue isn’t one of legalities. The issue is one of good behavior and respect for agency.”

    You’re saying that Freedom of Religion is not a legal issue?

  23. Johnathan wrote: “You’re saying that Freedom of Religion is not a legal issue?”

    Of course not, Johnathan. Where on earth did you get that idea?

    But it’s not *just* a legal issue. It’s also a moral issue. It’s possible to be in compliance of the law and still be unethical and immoral.

    BYU’s behavior in coercing students to adhere to Mormonism against their will is perfectly legal. Lord knows, BYU has a lot of lawyers, and I’m sure they’ve checked the fine print to ensure they are in compliance with the law. But the universities behavior is heavy handed and coercive and not what I (and many other people) would consider to be ethical or moral.

  24. Johnathan wrote: “Then … why the legal terminology…”

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about, Johnathan. Could you possibly have confused my comments with your own?

    Johnathan wrote: “The post concerns ….Freedom of Religion”

    Ah. I see. So you *did* confuse your comments for my own.

    You may see freedom of religion as a strictly legal concept, but I certainly don’t. I wouldn’t presume to confuse “legal” for “moral” the way you seem to.

    Johnathan wrote: “You want to deprive…..”

    Please, Johnathan. Don’t be rediculous. I’ve proposed no such thing. As I said (in the post to which you made your absurd comment) “BYU is certainly legally entitled to act badly and to use all legally allowed methods of coercion and intimidation [but having] a legal right to be a jerk doesn’t mean they *should* be a jerk, or that being a jerk is ethically/morally okay.

  25. The honor code is compulsory for students (who have already paid tuition to attend) and they do not get to negotiate terms of it.

    Calling it “mutually agreed upon” is woefully dishonest. It is akin to saying predatory loan conditions in small fine print are terms a customer voluntarily accepted. Its terms are unilateral and is signed under a form of duress.

    I understand the knee-jerk compulsion to act as an apologist for the LDS church, but this level of mendacity is far too obvious.

  26. It is worth emphasizing that BYU does more than simply refuse readmission for students who no longer believe in Mormonism. From BYU’s website we read:

    “A hold will be placed on a student’s record for … university standards violations …. no copy of the academic record or diploma or information about the record will be released, and graduation may be delayed or denied.”

    So even if a student wanted to leave Mormonism and transfer from BYU to another university, BYU would obstruct that choice by refusing to release the student’s records.

    Clearly (based on their behavior) BYU’s motive isn’t to just keep dangerous apostates from being on campus — their behavior shows that the university is attempting to use whatever leverage they have to coerce continued allegiance to the LDS Church.

  27. Johnathan wrote: “…. transfer that control to a tiny ….”

    Johnathan, dear. You’re becoming hysterical. Nobody has suggested any such thing.

  28. “Unless you’d like to argue that BYU has no obligation to make an honor code that conforms, among other things, to religious liberty principles?”

    That is exactly what the argument is. That principles of religious liberty do not and should not apply to a school funded by a church. Essentially an argument that BYU should be considered a Mormon “Madrassa” in the most negative sense of the term.

  29. It’s not just that the students who change religion from Mormon to anything else are expelled; they are also not allowed to use any credits for classes they have taken. All their credits become non-transferable. They lose all credit for the classes they have already taken — for which they already paid — and these credits cannot transfer to another school. I do not understand how anyone could view *that* as right or morally justified.

  30. Debbie,

    You quotation is accurate, but incomplete. The part you largely omitted reads: “. . . for failure to meet university obligations (fees outstanding, university standards violations, etc.). Until the obligation is fulfilled, . . .”

    I suspect the “university standards violations” would be things such as substantial evidence of plagiarism or other forms of cheating. Please supply documentation of cases where records have been withheld in application to other colleges for those who have formally left the church.

  31. Diane,

    We are all welcome to express our opinions on the internet whether or not they are based on facts! The vast majority of credits earned at BYU are certainly transferable to the vast majority of colleges. However, required religion classes at BYU are usually not transferable. These normally amount to about 10% of credits earned (see ).

  32. All student who attend BYU must have yearly “ecclesiastical endorsement” interviews. These interviews specifically review and check for understanding and willingness to abide by the BYU Honor Code. The Honor Code is Not something hidden in the fine print. As to “duress,” how many other colleges exist that students who object to BYU’s Honor Code could attend? Attending BYU is a choice not a requirement.

  33. BYU is a LDS Church institution. The church looks upon leaving the faith, especially voluntarily as apostasy….the person apostatized. When one leaves the faith, especially at the college level, almost always that person is involved in immoral behavior. BYU expels students for immoral behavior. Now that said, if someone expelled from BYU re-applies and goes through the proper interviews they can come back to the school. The expulsion can be temporary. Non-members attend BYU and their applications are approved all the time. Current politician…Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah..was a non-member when attending BYU and converted later.

  34. So the students are subjected to coercive compulsory meetings to ensure the adherence to the sect. All under penalty of sanction plus having one’s academic record unduly tied up to prevent transfer.

    I see nothing voluntary and mutually agreed here, as claimed.

    By including adherence to the faith as part of the honor code in the first place, BYU crosses moral lines. It is not about maintaining honor or integrity, it is about “defending the faith”.

    The existence of other colleges at the same academic level is no excuse for what is clearly bad behavior. I am not saying the Honor Code at BYU is illegal. They have the right to institute it. Its that the honor code is ethically and morally improper if one wants to maintain the appearance of valuing religious freedom.

    If people want BYU to be a Mormon madrassa, that is their right. Just expect more of these boycotts and protests. It comes with the territory.

  35. You guys want to run a university like a Saudi madrassa, so be it. Just don’t expect it to garner respect from those outside of the LDS echo chamber. Expect to see more protests by students and more boycotts.

    “someone expelled from BYU re-applies and goes through the proper interviews they can come back to the school.”

    The school ties up their academic records so the students are left with few options. Can you be more mendacious here?

  36. I don’t think anyone has an issue with someone being expelled from the university for immoral behavior that violates the honor code. But if someone who is LDS doesn’t violate the honor code but converts to the Methodist church, why expel them? Treat them like any other non-LDS student on campus. Make them pay full tuition and live by the honor code. But don’t kick them out simply for leaving the church. That seems like the antithesis of a Christian attitude.

  37. This question certainly has at least 2 sides. However, noting your comparison to madrasas and Juergensmeyer comment :. . . 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.” let’s be clear about magnitude. In many Muslim countries conversion from Islam would be grounds for execution which is certainly not the case at BYU!

    No one is forced to apply to a particular college. When BYU sends an acceptance letter, potential students are still free to choose whether or not to attend. The BYU Honor is clear, clearly understood, and students can withdraw at any time so “compulsion” is a bogus claim.

    Choices do have consequences. If one were to decide to become a vocal pacifist would continued enrollment in a U.S. Military Academy be appropriate? If one were to attend MIT and decide to pursue a degree in poetry or medieval history, should MIT be expected to…

  38. The charge of academic records being withheld have been made above. I’ve commented on that incomplete reading of policy in BYU Catalog. As I said before: “Please supply documentation of cases where academic records have [indeed] been withheld . . . for those who have formally left the church.”

  39. Nice rational response. All said and done one would think that’s consistent with church doctrine. Its policy, it’s procedure perhaps it would change. I wonder how many people leave the church while at BYU, with no moral transgression, if any?

  40. The bigger issue is why anyone would attend a school with such absurd requirements? One reason might be is that the forced tithing of all Mormons keeps the tuition low? And I doubt football and basketball recruits are subjected to these odd rules.

  41. When a college student changes their religious belief and affiliation you assume that “almost always the person is involved with immoral behavior”. Does this mean that when a non-Mormon is baptized in the LDS faith they are almost always involved in immoral behavior? Should someone of college age that is converting to Mormonism be assumed to be “involved in immoral behavior” because of their choice to change religious belief?

    Unless perhaps you honestly believe that there really is a double-standard. When people join any other Christian denomination it is due to their lifestyle choices of immorality. When someone chooses to join the LDS church they are somehow immune so that “involvement with immoral behavior”.

    What is it that is unique to Mormonism that keeps converts from being “involved in immoral behavior” during their faith transition that doesn’t apply to other religious traditions?

  42. The honor policy is many things, but the claims that it is agreed upon on a mutually voluntary basis are completely false. It is compelled by the school. The meetings for the purposes of reinforcing faith only add to the mendacity of such claims.

    “In many Muslim countries conversion from Islam would be grounds for execution which is certainly not the case at BYU!”

    Only because BYU is in a democratic nation not controlled by the LDS faith. The sentiment is the same. The only difference is degree.

    Having other options for schooling does not negate the lack of morality and discriminatory nature of the honor code. Again, its only a problem if you claim to value religious beliefs of students.

    “If one were to decide to become a vocal pacifist would continued enrollment in a U.S. Military Academy be appropriate?”

    The school would not kick you out for it. However if you choose not to take the commission upon graduation, they will make you pay the tuition.

  43. So that you (and everyone else reading) can know BYU’s full honor code, it’s contained on this site:
    For those of us who dislike clicking on links, here’s the more important parts of that Honor Code:
    “As a matter of personal commitment, [everyone] […] seek to demonstrate in daily living on and off campus those moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and will
    Be honest
    Live a chaste and virtuous life
    Obey the law and all campus policies
    Use clean language
    Respect others
    Abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, and substance abuse
    Participate regularly in church services
    Observe the Dress and Grooming Standards
    Encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code

    Specific policies are then listed below.

  44. Football and basketball recruits actually are subject to the same rules. Sports players have actually been suspended or expelled because they broke the Honor Code (depending on how serious a break it was).

  45. “I wonder how many people leave the church while at BYU, with no moral transgression, if any?”

    ZERO, since they were all morally corrupt for leaving the church!
    Nobody leaves the church unless they want to be free to commit sins which are forbidden by the holy church.

    At least that is what the usual rhetoric comes out when describing people who leave the LDS.

  46. I cannot fathom how a professor of religion can interpret standards at a religious school funded by a religious organization are a violation of religious liberty. Each religion sets its standards, including those which govern what its members have a right to do as members, the violation of which can result in excommunication, and as long as the standards are not in violation of God-given, i.e. constitutional rights, no one’s rights are violated. Thus freedoms are each religion. This professor is not aware of this basic tenant of religious freedom and this lack of awareness has resulted in his misunderstanding that there are universal standards of religious freedom that have been violated. In fact his attempt to classify BYU’s religious standards regarding freedoms according to his personal ideal of religious freedom is doing precisely what he accuses BYU of – denying religious freedom.

  47. The school literally has a double standard on its honor policy based on the religion of the students. How in any way does this demonstrate that the school takes the religious freedom of its students seriously?

    This is not a question of constitutional liberties or legality. Its a question of propriety and goals of the college. If they prefer students to lie about their belief under threat of expulsion, that is their prerogative. But one should expect all of the negative connotations of such efforts and criticism of such polices.

  48. Last Sunday, after church, my good friend Jana (no relation) came over to the house for dinner. She loves coming over because of our mutually love for the Patriots and Tom Brady. She absolutely adores my Tom Brady posters. Anywho, I said to her, Jana remember my parents will be there, no politics, no pro Obama speeches, etc…bite your tongue, she promised…she said….” let’s just enjoy conference.” Well, she couldn’t help herself, my 81 year old Dad muttered something about woman praying in church and Jana gave him a piece of her mind. I had to ask her to leave…didn’t set well….she was upset, claimed I was violating her right to free speech, freedom of association etc…. and more importantly…the privilege of setting my Dad straight! She called last night and apologized….no hard feelings…I’m bringing a chicken this week to her house as we watch the Pats ding Dallas.

  49. I read a comment from a BYU official who justified the policy by saying that members who leave the church have made covenants that non-members have not made. They are expelled for breaking those covenants. The official also said that religious freedom should allow BYU to set its own policies. The first justification is disturbing because many BYU students made those covenants when they were eight years old. Others made them because they gave in to pressure to go on a mission. (And let us not forget that some Mormon parents pressure their children to attend BYU.) The second justification reveals that the church’s focus on religious freedom has more to do with the freedom of religious organizations than with individual freedom. In my view, the justifications for the policy are almost as disturbing as the policy itself. I am a proud BYU graduate, but this policy is wrong.

  50. I would like to clarify: the students who made covenants when they were eight years old are the ones who were baptized at age eight and have never received the temple endowment; the students who made covenants because they gave in to pressure to serve a mission are those who only received their temple endowment as a required step before their service.

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