Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

BYU (almost) clarifies its policy on Mormon students who leave the faith, while claimi …

Hey, it’s progress! Maybe.

Readers of this blog may remember previous posts on the plight of LDS students at BYU in Provo who lose their faith while they are students at the church-sponsored university.

In a nutshell, they have had two choices: to remain silent about their doubts and just fake their orthodoxy, or be honest about their true feelings and risk losing their degree status, their on-campus housing, and their university jobs.


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In response to this policy, the organization FreeBYU has for the last several years advocated for change: specifically, that students who lose their Mormon faith not be expelled or evicted because of it.

FreeBYU believes it is fair to make such students pay full, unsubsidized tuition like other non-Mormon students do at the university, but not to refuse them a degree or evict them from their homes.

At last, it appears that the university has listened and begun to quietly change its policy. Last November BYU apparently updated its Honor Code, so quietly and privately that it only became news this month.

Based on the changes it now seems that only students who formally resign their church membership will lose their status as BYU students, not those who harbor doubts or question their faith before a bishop. That’s an improvement.*

The door is also open to the university handling things on a case-by-case basis; the language of students needing “unusual” or “extenuating” circumstances in order to receive an exemption has been removed.

However, some statements from BYU suggest that the university is claiming there is no connection between the new changes and the fact that the FreeBYU organization lobbied for these same changes in two well-publicized complaints last year.

According to the Deseret News,

A FreeBYU press release this week intimated that its complaint may have spurred the adjustments, and that it is possible the ABA’s decision was influenced by BYU’s adjustments. Jenkins said the FreeBYU complaint had no bearing on the school’s decisions.

“Discussions leading up to these adjustments began long before we received the ABA’s letter asking for a response to the complaint,” she said. “Given the approval process at the university, it simply would not have been possible to make these adjustments in the time Free BYU is stating. Adjustments to university policies are constantly being discussed and considered.”

What Jenkins appears to be saying here is that even though 1) the changes the university has made appear to directly address the major complaints FreeBYU made last year to the ABA and 2) the changes were made in early November 2015, following the ABA’s receipt of the second complaint in October, there was no cause-and-effect relationship between the complaint and the change.

“No bearing” at all? Hmmm.

FreeBYU is not buying it, and in an op ed published this morning the organization called into question BYU’s “downplaying” of both the changes themselves and the idea that they were created in response to the ABA’s involvement.

FreeBYU suggests the university has taken this position “in order to avoid any suspicions that it might not be impervious to external pressures.”

I agree that it certainly looks that way. Speaking for myself, I might be persuaded that the university did, as it says, begin discussions about the changing policy before the ABA asked it to respond to FreeBYU in October. You can’t even change a light bulb in academia within a three-week window, let alone a controversial school policy. So it makes sense that a change that went live in November had likely been debated for months beforehand.

But to ask me to believe that it’s not related at all to the challenges FreeBYU had been raising for quite some time now—including its first complaint to BYU’s law school in May of last year—is just insulting.

Where is the humility? Is it too much for a church university to look at the pain it caused to some students and alumni and express gratitude that someone brought that pain to the institution’s attention? To say, “We examined the complaints and found they had merit, so we have made a change”?

Instead we get this “no bearing” language: “We came to this conclusion entirely independently. The similarities and the timing are merely coincidence. Oh, and by the way, we have always been at war with Eastasia.”

BYU can and should do better than this. It’s great that the university is beginning to soften the policy, but to do it so surreptitiously that even its own students weren’t aware of the change in the 2015-16 school year bespeaks an institution that is aching to save face. BYU doesn’t want to be seen as caving to criticism, no matter how justified that criticism.


*Update: FreeBYU emailed me this afternoon (8/22/16) with a clarification about my interpretation that the Honor Code changes make it sound like a student would have to formally resign from the Church in order to be expelled from BYU. It might not be that simple, says Ryan Bowcutt:

This statement is only kind of true now, and it was equally kind of true before, so I’m not aware of anything that has changed in this regard. A bishop can revoke a student’s ecclesiastical endorsement for any reason, even if they’re just having doubts and the bishop thinks that makes them unworthy to stay at the Y (of if they just look at him funny). A bishop technically shouldn’t revoke one for this reason though since there’s no prohibition on doubting (or even fully losing belief) in the Honor Code, nor has there ever been as far as I’m aware, but the bishop has full discretion in his decisions on whether and when to renew or revoke an endorsement. If a student loses their endorsement (and can’t successfully appeal the loss to their stake president), their only hope of staying in school would be to file an Application for Exception. This is the same recourse available for a student who resigns from the church.

I’ll watch carefully to see how the story unfolds, and how the new provision is interpreted.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

12 Comments

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  • Hmm. In my last temple recommend interview, I was asked if I was honest in all of my dealings. And I think I remember Ezra Taft Benson warning us to beware of pride for it would be our undoing.

  • I’ve been looking at official and pseudo-official LDS activities over the last few years and I’ve found a lot wanting in regards to the famed Mormon Integrity and Righteousness. Instead of finding a happy and good people who is chaste or benevolent I’ve found more and more examples of the sins of King Noah and of the Pharisees. Everyone, including the Church itself, is replaceable – as Jesus said: God is able to raise up stones to be the children of Abraham.

  • “Where is the humility?” Good question. Maybe some introspection is merited on your own part.

  • Nothing says Mormonism better than that’s what we meant all along. Trust us we are making this all up as we go anyhow. It kind of reminds me about the rollout of the Gospel Topics Essays. My Stake President brother still denys their existence.

  • This was precisely how they reacted to complaints about their lack of a religious exemption for beards. In January 2015 they changed the policy for the better and pretended like it had nothing to do with the people who were bringing the issue to light. At least they’re implementing reforms, even if they refuse to give credit where credit is due.

  • The school is among the most affordable for its quality of nearly any university out there; Check any value ranking in the country: US News, Princeton review, Forbes, you name it.

    Why so affordable? Because tuition is massive subsidized by tithing, sacred offerings offering made be members of the church to further the mission of the church.

    So, in my mind, why would we use sacred funds on those who have left the church and now often fight against it? ESPECIALLY when students knew consequences and signed, giving thier word. All that said, this new policy is the right thing to do if, and only if, the student pays the increased, non-member tuition (since they aren’t paying tithing now), and they promise not to antagonize Byu or the church while at BYU. Let them finish thier degree and move on.

  • “the student pays the increased, non-member tuition (since they aren’t
    paying tithing now), and they promise not to antagonize Byu or the
    church while at BYU.”

    So expressing an opinion contrary to the school or Mormon faith is grounds for expulsion from the school even if one is not a tithing student and paying the full tuition to attend? Very coercive policy. Very much part of the trend with conservative religious schools to isolate students from diverse opinions that may exist outside one’s sect’s community.

  • Why would anyone want to go to BYU? The church and school should break apart and function as 2 separate organizations. If the LDS or any other branch of Mormonism wishes to give scholarships to anyone to attend they still could, and the school could end its bigoted policies. As they stand, I’m not sure why or how they can concider themselves a Christian school, as their policies reflect worldly views of right and wrong (ex: Jesus doesn’t care if you have a beard or not, just what’s in your heart).

  • BYU?!? It would have been helpful for your non- US readers if your article had used the full name, “Brigham Young University” at least once in the article.

  • “So expressing an opinion contrary to the school or Mormon faith is grounds for expulsion from the school?”

    Yes. It’s a private organization. That means it makes it’s own rules and you and agree and enter or disagree and refrain from entering; it’s really simple. You don’t join the NFL, sign a contract, and complain of getting hit. You don’t join the convent, sign a contract, and complain of sex life. You don’t join BYU, sign a contract, and then actively work to to discredit it, to harm it and expect to stay. Try that at the private organization you work for; Criticize it’s founders, it’s founding principles, and spread the news that the company is fraudulent and see how long you keep your job.

    That is how private organizations function. I stay away from organizations I don’t believe in… we all should.

  • As long as you don’t pretend such policies are beyond criticism. Of course they should be far more upfront about their animosity to dissent.

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