(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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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