UCSB sociology, global studies, and religious studies professor Dr. Mark Juergensmeyer decided not to speak at a conference this week at Brigham Young University after learning that the college, owned by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, expels Mormon students who lose their faith.
In an article he wrote for the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Juergensmeyer said he was excited to speak at BYU’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies in a conference partially focused on religious freedom, until he received an email from Free BYU, a student group advocating for freedom of religion at BYU. The email brought to his attention the college’s policy of automatically expelling Mormon students who question their faith, convert to different religions, or leave the church.
After researching the policy — which prizes non-Mormon students who convert to Mormonism but punishes Mormon students who convert away — Juergensmeyer decided he “could not attend a conference in part dedicated to religious freedom on a campus that denied it to its own Mormon students.” At BYU, a Mormon student who changes his faith then loses his scholarship, university housing, campus job, and, most importantly, the ecclesiastical endorsement he needs to remain in good honor at the college, according to the school’s religion policy.
Juergensmeyer, who values the university setting as “the arena for the free expression of ideas,” sent a letter of withdrawal to BYU Professor Elizabeth Clark, Associate Director of the International Center for Law and Religious Studies.
In his letter, Juergensmeyer voiced his support for those in favor of religious freedom at the college. “I know that many faculty members at BYU are opposed to this policy and are quietly working to change it,” he wrote. “I applaud them, and hope that my decision will be taken as a sign of support for those within BYU who are seeking change.”
In response, Juergensmeyer received a comment from one organizer who, he told The Santa Barbara Independent, “respected his right to take the stand, but supported the university.” Although BYU faculty didn’t respond to phone calls or emails from The Independent, Clark told the Orange County Register, “What can I say? We respect his point of view. We support the right of all individuals to honor their conscience.”
Juergensmeyer also said he’s received over 40 emails from current and former BYU students sharing their stories of being expelled months before their graduation. Many of these students told Juergensmeyer that no one had ever spoken out against the policy. “It just ruins their career,” Juergensmeyer said.