He expected he would have to make minor changes—not rewrite the book.
In the middle of his final year at Brigham Young University's J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brad Levin finally finished a draft of what he hoped would be a game-changing book on the university owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: “Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective.” In the book, Levin laid out why same-sex marriage was not, according to his research, at odds with the church's teachings. Proud of his work, he shared a few copies with friends for some feedback.
But when the feedback came, it wasn’t the kind he had been hoping for.
“I was basically threatened with removal from the university if I went forward and took a public stance in favor of gay marriage,” Levin, 33, told Fusion, citing conversations he said he had with senior school officials. “I was told that I had to change the contents of my book to be on the right side of the church.”
After calculating how far back in life such an expulsion would set him, Levin relented, changing key parts of his book. Years earlier, he remembered, his brother was expelled from the school after leaving the Mormon faith, and it cost him severely.
“That was, I guess, what I could call the end of my happy days on campus,” Levin said. After spending seven idyllic years at the school, his last six months before graduation were marked by a fear that he would get expelled.
Levin's experience publishing his book was the impetus for a complaint he recently filed to the American Bar Association against BYU’s law school, alleging that the school’s Honor Code violates accreditation standards. The ABA is currently holding an inquiry into Levin’s allegations—the second step in its process—to determine whether the school’s rules violate its non-discrimination standards.
If all goes Levin’s way, the school could either lose its accreditation or be forced to make changes to its Honor Code. The school’s Code explicitly bans homosexual behavior and calls for the expulsion of ex-Mormon students from campus. (In a separate issue, the university's honor code is under fire by students who say it discourages reporting of sexual assault, a charge the school denied.)
The potential clash between the honor code and students' opinions about same-sex marriage was predicted last year by Gene Schaerr, a current BYU law professor who said these kinds of situations would arise around the country at universities with religious affiliations.
“Schools depend on the ability to get accredited in order for their students to get federal funding, and their students rely on the school’s accreditation to get jobs in a lot of professions,” Schaerr said at a forum following the decision. “If same-sex marriage is the law of the land and constitutionally required, isn’t it possible that accrediting bodies are going to start pressuring religious colleges to recognize same-sex marriage in order to get accredited?”
“The [Supreme Court's] opinion launches a bunch of grenades that are still in the air,” he concluded.
At BYU, all students have to have a periodic ecclesiastical endorsement in order to maintain studies. The endorsements come from church Bishops and are not reviewable. Some non-Mormons attend the school—paying higher tuitions—but those who leave the Mormon faith, or those whose public views on social issues veer too far from the book can be summarily expelled.
As a result of this process, students whose beliefs begin to diverge from Mormon teachings while at the school describe a paranoid atmosphere.
“It’s very emotionally taxing to kind of—have you read 1984?—always feeling like people are watching you,” Betty, a current student, told Fusion about the experiences of ex-Mormons like her on campus. (Her name has been changed to protect her from potential repercussions from the school.)
“If you’re found out by anyone in your ward, they can call you in and you get expelled,” she said of living arrangements.
Up until about a year ago, Betty, 25, was a lifelong devout Mormon, until she “encountered a lot of information about the church” that made her doubt church teachings, she said. She and her husband, also a BYU student, even considered removing their records from the church, but then realized that it would result in their expulsions.
“So now, we still have to attend the LDS church and do what we have to do to fly under the radar,” she said. “It’s so sad. People even have to lie to the bishops to [pass the review].”
On the website of FreeBYU, an organization that promotes the “freedom of thought and freedom of religion at BYU,” alumni and anonymous current students post short stories about their experiences at the school. The organization, of which Levin is a director, is asking that the school’s Honor Code “be updated to allow LDS students to change their personal religious beliefs without being expelled from the University and evicted from their housing.”
One former student posted the letter he received from a senior school official upon resigning from the church. The last line reads, in bold and with an underline: “Your classes will be discontinued immediately.”
The ecclesiastical endorsement process is agreed to before students start at the school, said Carrie Jenkins, a university spokesperson, in a statement to Fusion.
"[B]ecause of covenants and commitments members of the LDS Church have made, they can no longer remain in good Honor Code standing if they choose to formally disaffiliate from the LDS Church," Jenkins wrote.
Students experiencing doubts about their faith "can continue at the university if they abide by the conduct standards described in the Honor Code," she said. The university is confident that it is operating in compliance with accreditation standards.
The situation has drawn parallels to cases that have reached the Supreme Court. In 2011, the court ruled that a religious student group at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law unfairly discriminated against homosexuals when the group required members to sign a "statement of belief" and avoid conduct that violated those beliefs, such as homosexual acts and pre-marital sex. The group claimed that it did not discriminate on homosexual status, only on homosexual conduct. The Supreme Court dismissed that distinction.
In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that an employee has the right to change religious beliefs and practices without penalty, even if it causes a burden on a business; yet also that year, it unanimously held that the Mormon church had the right to fire an employee from a public facility it operated after that employee fell out of favor with the church.
"While students are not employees [like the man in the 1987 case], the idea that a student should have the right to change his or her faith while in law school seems consistent with the ABA’s standard," Sally Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on religion and government, told Fusion in an email. "There is apparently no challenge to the differential tuition treatment for member of the LDS Church and those outside the faith. In light of that, it would seem that if a given student left the church, for a reason that would not otherwise subject them to discipline, it may be reasonable to transfer the student to the non-Mormon side of the ledger."
Another recent relevant Supreme Court decision Gordon referenced was the Hobby Lobby case of 2014, which ruled that private companies have the right to exercise their religious beliefs—refusing to cover contraceptives in health care plans, in this case—even if those beliefs impose restrictions on the employees. "This situation is rife with the tensions that underlay [that case]," said Gordon, adding that "the law is somewhat muddy" when it comes to what "freedom of the church" actually means in practice.
But with the law school's accreditation on the line—a key to admission to the bar for future lawyers and a prerequisite for federal student aid dollars—this case could have a broad impact.
The ABA acknowledges it currently has an inquiry into the law school’s accreditation underway, while stressing that no conclusions should be made as to the merit of Levin’s complaint. Further, any movement on accreditation complaints are held confidential unless they result in a public sanction, probation, or the removal of a school’s approval.
That means that the full results of the inquiry won't likely be known unless the two organizations reach an impasse, or if a nuclear option is considered. The ABA does not comment on specific confidential inquiries.
In its non-discrimination code for accredited schools, the ABA notes that its rules permit "religious affiliation or purpose policies as to admission, retention, and employment only to the extent that these policies are protected by the United States Constitution."
After being a graphic design student at BYU for nearly three years, Kiefer McBride, 26, decided to drop out of the school, saying he was forced to live a secret life for his last year at the school when he lost his faith.
"I kept weighing the decision: do I stay here and keep my mouth shut and live a lie, or do I just leave?" he said. Due to his decline in church attendance (which the school tracks) and his rising involvement with ex-Mormon support groups, he said, it was only a matter of time before the school took action and expelled him. "It's kind of alienating, having to pick up and leave," he said.
He is still trying to put his life back together after leaving last December. A majority of the credits he earned at BYU don't transfer to other schools. He misses his friends, and he misses his life.
"A reexamination of the policy is necessary," said McBride. "I would go back in a heartbeat if I could be honest about my beliefs."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.