Yesterday it was announced that BYU has softened its Honor Code. “This change, made in November, may allow LDS students, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to leave the church but maintain their academic standing at BYU.”
While it seems that this isn’t a surefire thing (it’s still on a case-by-case basis, and there are no guarantees), it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and one that Mormon Spectrum can definitely get behind.
Faith transitions are hard. Trying to figure out life, relationships, faith, morality, etc., without the belief structure you’ve always known is a monumental challenge. And if your faith transition happens while you’re attending a church-run school like BYU, there’s an added challenge: Your ability to finish your degree is tied to the Honor Code, which requires you to remain a member in good standing with the church* (if you started as a member. The requirement doesn’t apply to non-members). So your options feel quite limited. Do you keep your faith transition to yourself and keep attending church? Do you lie to the Honor Code question regarding church attendance when you have that interview with your Bishop every year? Do you try to be honest and hope that your Bishop is okay with it? Or do you stop going to college and give up on your degree?
I don’t just say this in some kind of hypothetical what-if kind of way. It happened to me. In 2013 I resumed my degree online through BYU’s General Studies degree option. I only had about 30 credits left; it was going to be the cheapest, easiest way to get a bachelors; and bonus, I could get the degree from the comfort of my own home. Having just finished a 2-year associate degree, all of those things were important to me.
A year later I found myself in the Bishop’s and then Stake President’s office for my yearly Ecclesiastical Endorsement just a couple months after I stopped attending church regularly. I chose to be honest with them and I told them that I would NOT commit to attending church and holding a calling. I could answer all the other questions “correctly,” but I wouldn’t lie for a degree. I was really nice about it. I told both the Bishop and Stake President that I didn’t want to put them in an awkward position just to get a degree, so if they didn’t feel comfortable signing that paper, they shouldn’t. But I also said that I thought it was really silly that this one question might be enough to keep me from getting my degree. I had done some research, and if you’re a non-member attending BYU, that question isn’t even on your Honor Code question list! I said, “If it helps, I consider myself a non-member.” My Bishop’s response was, “Non-members don’t have membership numbers.” I responded to that with something like, “So you think it’d be better for me to not have a membership number so I could keep attending BYU?!”
The Bishop and Stake President both signed my endorsement that year, but it felt like I’d been let off the hook. I knew that I was inches away from my degree not being an option any more. This was very stressful and it was something I thought about all the time. Would I be able to finish my degree before my faith changed to the point where those two men weren’t willing to sign my paper any more? It was a race against time and I felt like I was going to lose. I sat down with my Stake President in a separate interview and asked him point blank what I would have to do to disqualify myself from maintaining standing. He said that I’d have to fit the label of Apostate for me to lose standing. My question then was, “Do I fit it now?” He said I didn’t, but I knew others who already thought I did.
When I told my Stake President that I felt awful about all of this, that it was stressful and really nerve-wracking for him to hold so much power over my life, he looked clueless. “Why do I hold power over you?” I just stared at him for a minute. Did he really not know? “Umm, you have the power to kick me out of BYU and the church. And I wouldn’t have anything I could do about it.”
A few months later I decided it would be best for everyone if I just stopped trying to get a degree from BYU. No more power games, no more groveling, no more wondering if I could “beat the clock” to get my degree. I just set it aside and moved on with my life.
Situations like this are happening to lots of people. In fact, if I listen to someone’s transition story, and they say, “I was attending BYU at the time,” I know it’s going to be a sad story. It might involve them being kicked out of school, or bullied by a Bishop, or terrified into silence, and none of those are good things.
Here at Mormon Spectrum, we support people engaging with Mormonism on their own terms, in a way that is safe and supportive. This change in the Honor Code can help that happen for BYU students who find themselves trying to navigate their faith transition as well as finishing up their degree. And that’s going to be a good thing for everyone.
… I’m still only 18 credits shy of that BYU degree.
*BYU words it like this: “Students must be in good Honor Code standing to be admitted to, continue enrollment at, and graduate from BYU. The term “good Honor Code standing” means that a student’s conduct is consistent with the Honor Code and the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the loss of good Honor Code standing.”