148: Brad Levin: Religious Freedom and Belief at BYU

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 2.25.14 PMA discussion with Brad Levin, a founder of Free BYU, about the issues arising when BYU students change their spiritual and religious beliefs.

From Free BYU’s page:

“Under BYU’s existing policies, LDS students who change their personal beliefs about God are expelled from school, evicted from their homes, and fired from their jobs¹.  There is no similar policy for non-LDS students at BYU: a Catholic may convert to Mormonism, but a Mormon may not convert to Catholicism.

This policy creates a coercive environment in which LDS students cannot honestly evaluate their personal faith without risking severe disruption to their lives.

As parents, students, professors, and alumni of BYU, we feel that this policy is at odds with the principles of religious freedom espoused by both the University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 2.26.23 PM

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11 Comments

  1. Doug

    This topic has resonated with me for the last year as I’ve heard more about it. I went to BYU in the 1980s and the previous honor code that did not expel Mormon students for a change in belief worked perfectly well at that time. They paid the non-member tuition like the other non-members who were admitted to BYU. While there are many reasons my friends and BYU leaders may point to as why it is acceptable to expel Mormon students who change their beliefs my answer is direct: – Regardless of other seemingly good reasons, it is simply not in harmony with the principle of religious freedom that I have been taught to defend as an active member of the LDS church and therefore I can’t support this policy in the honor code. All of my children either have attended or do attend BYU and I don’t wish them to disaffiliate from the church, but religious freedom is a personal right. The argument that a BYU education is subsidized by the church, that other LDS youth were turned away or that a Mormon student when they join another faith is breaking covenants still does not negate the important and overriding principle of personal religious freedom that is violated when you use the ability to continue your education as a punishment for someone for changes beliefs. BYU leaders can and should change the honor code in support of individual religious freedom – a principle we as Mormons hold dear. Thank you Brad and Gina for bringing attention to this through your organization and your podcast.

    1. Thanks Doug for your thoughtful comments.
      I have to confess, I agree that religious freedom is a personal right! Supporting that right would make the honor code more, well, honorable.
      Would you be willing to share what you shared here at http://www.freebyu.org/profiles/? We have diverse perspectives there, and I’m interested in having more voices from active members. If so- please send your story and a picture (if you’d like) to stories@freebyu.org.
      In any case, thanks for speaking up here.

  2. Q

    The significant degree of influence that bishops have in honor code enforcement can also have other weird consequences. A BYU professor I know once told me of a case where a student was repeatedly caught cheating in his classes, but the honor code office was prevented from disciplining the student by his bishop, who apparently was concerned about his long term faith and who was holding out hope that he would repent. If only BYU bishops were always so deferential to the needs of students (real or imagined).

    Many of us who have experienced faith transitions don’t feel like it was necessarily something we chose or had complete control over. I think it’s much more reasonable to hold students accountable to a code of conduct they agreed to (the original intent of the honor code) than to a code of belief (which is how it functions when it’s used to push out students whose faith has changed).

    As for the idea of allowing LDS students who disaffiliate to remain and pay non-LDS tuition, I’m all in favor, but it should be pointed out that even non-LDS tuition (as far as I’m aware) is still partially subsidized by the church. I wouldn’t be surprised if the leadership views subsidized tuition for non members as essentially an extension of the missionary program, one that isn’t likely to bear fruit in the case of ex-LDS students.

    1. Doug

      It shouldn’t matter if the leaders have chosen a tuition that subsidizes non-LDS students or for what reason – that doesn’t mean we abandon our principles. They can charge what they want, raise the tuition if that’s a concern. The low tuition level shouldn’t hold someone’s faith hostage. It’s pretty shallow to believe that every interaction we choose to have with non-LDS people is meant to convert them and if we can’t convert them it’s not worth it. But having been a missionary, ward mission leader and active Mormon over my life I know that the culture teaches us Mormons that line of thinking. It’s true and your speculation about the leadership corroborates this.

      1. JohnS

        I disagree Doug. The tuition issue is a major one for me, and I think it deserves more consideration. I also think the complaints are themselves somewhat sophomoric, and the reliance on human rights is somewhat appalling. I never attended BYU and have never set foot in Utah, but I have been a member all of my life.

        If we are to use Forbes as a guide, BYU ranks 104 in the Forbes ranking. It is bracketed by UC Santa Barbara and Kalamazoo College. BYU costs $17K, bracketed by $57k and $52k. This is likely averaged, as BYU is absurdly cheap, even for non-Mormons, but far cheaper for Mormon than non-Mormon. And this is all, Mo or noMo, subsidized by tithing. I do have a problem with BYU being such a Utah school, the percentage of Mormons from outside of predominant Mormon regions is too small, IMO, to include international students, but it is still a school dedicated to the aims of the Church, and subsidized by the Church. Those who decide to voluntarily separate themselves from the Church have every right to do so, and should follow the dictates of their own conscience, but they do not have demands on the finances of the institution they leave.

        I never attended BYU, I went to a US Service Academy instead, and had a full ride. If I became a conscientious objector, I would have had to pay back my education. This was a known at the time, and it happened with some people. I would not have been allowed to graduate, either. Had I left as a Senior, my credits would all transfer, but no institution would have let me take one or two classes and graduate, I would have had to complete two years more in most cases, more so in others. I am aware that this is a military school, but the same holds for students pursuing their undergraduate degrees with the intention of joining the Catholic priesthood. The Catholic Church also subsidizes this. Students deciding to leave, are not subsidized, in often have to pay back their educational expenses.

        I have no problem with people leaving the Church, with people questioning the Church, or with people seeking to change the Church. But I have a problem with the absurdity of people who want to effectively leave the church, and then demand that the same institution they are leaving continue to subsidize their education, all under the guide of human rights. I’ve spent time in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in places where human rights have no meaning at all. These are places where a Shiite can be killed for being a Shiite, or a Sunni can be killed for being a Sunni. Where women attempting to gain an education can be killed and where routine violence scars the physical and emotional landscape, all in clear violation of human rights. The fact that some students at BYU are unhappy that a private institution like BYU is not being forced to continue to subsidize their education, while claiming that their human rights are being violated…? This is the worst form of first world whining.

        If BYU were to change policy, and then raise tuition to the market rate, something like $42k for tuition alone, would that work out? If not, why not? I think all of the mental anguish at continuing to attend while not believing would immediately evaporate and students would just keep quiet and say nothing until after graduation.

        Having a conscience, having morals, having ethics, means accepting responsibility for the consequences of those morals and ethics. Girls that walk to school in Afghanistan know they could be killed, but they go anyway, and this is for little more than maybe an 8th grade education. The fact that some students at BYU might have to continue their education at another institution just does not raise itself to the level of a human rights violation in my book, or to the level of needing to whine about it.

        But then again…first-world American problems…

        1. Becky

          Amen, couldn’t agree more with this post. This is the worst form of first world whining. Would this “Free BYU Group” even be happy if they let you stay and pay non-mormon tuition? I don’t think so. What is the true aim here? You have every right to leave the church, change your belief system, etc., but you cross the line when you expect a private institution to change their belief system to match yours. This is not a human rights issue, I’m sorry. Do you understand the difference between private and public? Do you understand the benefits of being able to have private institutions? I understand the difficulty of wanting to leave the church right before you graduate, but seriously, you knew when you started what it states in the honor code. Deal with it and leave the church after you graduate!!
          Mental health issues, my eye! Life is super hard and it throws you lots of curve balls continuously and growth will occur because of it, but like was mentioned above, go to a third world country and then talk to us about mental health problems. Seriously, your generation is so fragile.

          I don’t wish to discount all of your points, some of them are valid. Seeking to bring some clarity to the subject, so bishops know the guidelines and boundaries and aren’t all over the place and students know upfront what the terms and conditions are would be great. Letting students who are disaffected or change religions stay and pay non-lds tuition is reasonable too as long as they want to abide by the honor code. I think this is fair on both sides, students don’t lose their financial/time investments, and BYU doesn’t have to supplement you as a non-believer. This sounds harsh, but it’s what real freedom is. It’s not always pretty, but it’s worth it. If you don’t like how BYU does things then go somewhere else. It seemed to fit you fine when you were a believer. Do they have to change because you did?
          I’m not even saying here whether or not I agree with how BYU is handling this, but that’s beside the point, they are a private institution and as long as the understanding/expectations are clear from the get go, then one has no right to complain. Helping to clear things up is appropriate, but trying to take BYU’s rights as a private institution away is wrong. Please tell me you learned that in law school?

        2. Neal

          I have to disagree with John and Becky here. As a tithe paying member my whole life, and my parents as tithe payers for their whole lives, we have more than “paid our dues” to the Church system. 100s of thousands of dollars!! If I was a student and left the Church, my family would more than have paid for any subsidies. The tuition subsidy is for ALL students. That’s a decision the Church made when they created the school, and they should apply it without prejudice to any student. Having disaffiliated students pay the non-member rate is more than fair. Who says a disaffiliated student will not come back? Did Christ not say to leave the ninety and nine and go after the one? Are you saying a disaffiliated student is not “worth” being treated in a Christian way?

          1. JohnS

            Neal, with your position we now have an aristocracy within the Church, those who have a lineage of tithing payment vs those who do not. I do not. My parents were converts and rarely paid tithing. Not that there is not an aristocracy anyway, but I do not think we should strengthen it. I did not go to BYU, however. I hope my kids will. They will not likely get in, however, as we do not live in Utah, or close to Utah. And I agree with you that all tuition is subsidized, but it is subsidized based on a set understanding of input data. If BYU gives me a scholarship to come and study Mechanical Engineering, and I swap to Modern British Literature, do I get to keep my scholarship? If I get a football scholarship and I do not want to play, do I keep my scholarship? No to both. If I am Catholic and I get funded to become a priest, and in the end I claim I do not believe anymore, the Catholic Church will expect repayment. I do not necessarily blame them for this. It really is up to them.

            But BYU admissions makes decisions based on the whole spectrum of variables, including member/non-member. I do not support lying to gain admission. But once the decision is made, it has been made. Members of all stripes are denied admission based on these variables. Then when someone decides to leave, that spot is gone forever. If that person had not been a member, they might not have even been admitted as a non-member, their particular application might not have fit the needs of the school at the time, and this sort of student body shaping, as Machiavellian as it may seem, is certainly what is going on.

            So, I have no problem with people leaving, I have no problem with people questioning, but at some point there needs to be a decision that is equitable. Rather than stay at the non-member price, why not pay the market rate? Around $55k a year? That would be the most equitable solution, but no one is going to do this. I would prefer that everyone be honest, and let the situation work out honestly. And that does mean some students pay far more or leave.

            But this sort of having the cake and eating it too by claiming it is a violation of human rights is untenable. It is also intellectually dishonest.

  3. Jen K.

    Thanks for the great podcast!

    If I’m not mistaken, BYU’s Counseling center (Provo campus) is a safe harbor for students seeking mental health assistance during faith transitions. IIRC, counselors cannot/do not ever report such conversations to the honor code office.

    Of course that doesn’t solve the main problem – but it’s a refuge that can be offered to students for now at least, in the interim.

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