Kathy and her husband, Zach, take care to hide their coffee machine when friends come over. The Brigham Young University students have a vacuum cleaner that squirts Febreze to hide the scent, because if anyone outside of a select few finds out the couple has lost faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, their bishop might withdraw his ecclesiastical endorsement. Without it, they would be expelled. The university would initiate proceedings to terminate their campus jobs. If they were still single and lived in campus-affiliated housing, they would be swiftly evicted.
At Brigham Young University, the Provo, Utah-based Mormon superschool that boasts a network of satellite campuses, impressive national rankings, and educates many LDS members, students are free to enroll as members of any faith, or even of none. Mormons pay a discounted tuition, but all others attend at an annual tuition cost of just $10,000—not bad for a private school ranked 62nd among national universities by U.S. News and World Report. But students who were members of the Mormon Church at any point in their lives are not eligible to attend the university if they leave the faith.
If they stop believing in church doctrine while at school, they can be automatically expelled with a simple phone call from their bishop.
In a November 2014 statement, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins acknowledged such a disparity. “Non-members have not made promises and commitments that a member of the church has,” she said. “A former Mormon who decides to leave the church distances themselves from those promises and commitments. The result is that they are not eligible to attend BYU.”
In a highly religious environment, such faith changes are taxing. Formerly Mormon-identified students largely say they love BYU, but all say their experience is tainted by a pervasive undercurrent of fear. Many have sought counseling, with their confidentiality-bound therapist being one of the few people they can confide in. Now, a new alumni-run campaign is calling BYU’s accreditation into question over concerns of intellectual freedom. Ex-LDS students, however, must watch the campaign largely from the sidelines, as any outspoken involvement may get them kicked out.
Reasons for leaving the church vary, but most of the students interviewed by The Daily Beast cited a clash of church teachings with deeply held personal understandings of the world.
For Kathy, the journey to what the church calls a “faith crisis” began when she met her now-husband, initially just a close friend who eventually confided that he had lost faith in the church. (Her name, like all names of current students in this story, has been changed to protect her academic standing at the university.)
“It wasn’t anything about how people are treated in the church, but that he couldn’t believe in a god that would allow such terrible things to happen,” she says. Breaking with BYU custom, he had even decided not to go on a mission after his freshman year—something expected of male attendees.
Kathy found it liberating to have a friend who was so open to doubt, but she remained—as she had always been—a so-called “Molly Mormon.” Those in the faith give that nickname to the ultra-pious, who are never a step out of beat. She even submitted paperwork to go on a mission herself, even though it is less common for women to do so. Kathy was just waiting to get the call. And then she started dating her now-husband.
“In the end I decided to do a very traditional BYU-woman thing to do and I decided not to go on my mission so I could continue dating him,” Kathy says. Soon, they began talking about marriage. Her husband, Zach, said that he could see himself “doing the church thing,” and they decided to have a religious wedding.
Because neither one of them had served a mission they went through the temple for an endowment ceremony for the first time. That was “the first thing that really broke a lot of things for us,” she now recalls.
Zach had watched one on Youtube before, so he knew what to expect. Kathy says he didn’t feel any particularly spiritual calling, but took it in stride as confirmation of his previous doubts. She, on the other hand, describes her experience as “weird,” but “also kind of wonderful because here I am, as a woman in the church, and they keep handing me these tokens of the priesthood.”
She’d never given serious thought to the role of women in the church before, but the ceremony confirmed her underlying assumptions: They may not have the priesthood in this Earthly life, but they would certainly have it in the afterlife.
“So in that sense it was beautiful, and I really got a lot out of it.” She felt like she had received “a gift from God.”
Then a movement to ordain women in this lifetime started to gain traction within the church. Its founder, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated in 2014. Kathy wasn’t involved in the Ordain Women movement and didn’t particularly identify herself as a feminist, but was struck by the disdain for the women within the church as the idea picked up steam. It made her start to question the institution.
Marriage to a skeptic had made her more curious, “but it wasn’t really until then, that I went through the temple and had a spiritual experience, and that spiritual experience was contrary to [the teachings of the church],” that she began to question the existence of God. The message she was getting was that her spiritual experience was wrong, incompatible with church teachings. “It made me question what kind of god is the LDS Church promoting, and it made me question what kind of god is Christianity promoting,” she says.
Within a year, she had given up faith in God.
For others, like Jordan, the path was more straightforward. Raised in a large, observant LDS family, he spent much of his youth living up to the Mormon teen ideal. “I was Eagle Scout at 16. I did everything my parents wanted me to do,” he says.
But the one thing he couldn’t do, he said, is convince himself to believe.
Ultimately, Jordan considered truth claims made by all religions, and found that they were strikingly similar. The odds that his faith was the right one—and all others were therefore wrong—didn’t seem very likely. But he continued to excel in church-related pursuits, in part out of not wanting to disappoint his parents, who still don’t know about his loss of faith.
“It’s a lot easier to serve your parents than it is to serve someone you’ll never meet,” says Jordan, laughing.
Jordan followed all the rules, and became president of his seminary class, which met daily before school. For an overachiever, it was fairly easy. When he finally told a brother about his revelation, the response was expected: “But you’re more Mormon than most Mormons!”
Jordan enrolled at BYU despite knowing that he was not a believer, drawn by family tradition, a strict moral code, and the main campus’s strong academic reputation. He was also worried, Jordan confides, that he might be pressured into drinking at a non-denominational campus, or forced to contend with fraternities and hazing rituals. (Despite leaving the faith, Jordan still doesn’t drink or smoke. He, like all the students interviewed for this story, says he would be willing to pay the non-LDS tuition rate if coming out didn’t mean getting expelled.)
At first it was fairly easy to blend in, even if it meant having his guard up at all times. Then, his freshman-year roommates went on their missions. Jordan opted not to—something he readily admits made him an “outlier.” He was placed with highly observant men who had already returned from their time away.
They asked repeatedly about why he hadn’t gone away. “I would be like, ‘Yeah, I’m probably going to go in a year or two,’” he says. “And lying—I’m very against lying. And I’m also very against getting expelled.”
Despite that difficult year, he’s been somewhat lax about protecting his privacy, in part because of the moral values he learned through his LDS upbringing. Once, Jordan even posted his email address on an online message board for questioning students. Yet his cheery demeanor and moral values—he now describes his religious philosophy as mainly Utilitarian, aiming to maximize joy—don’t make him stick out in the morally driven student body.
When he asked a freshman-year roommate to guess his secret, the roommate guessed that Jordan was gay. He didn’t think that Jordan could be an atheist.
In some ways, though, if Jordan were gay he may have had an easier time telling people on BYU’s campus. Nearly a decade after the Mormon Church’s overt anti-gay advocacy on California’s Proposition 8, the stances of the church—at least among its younger members—have softened.
Alex, another upperclassman at BYU, identifies as queer. He was raised in a third-generation LDS family and served a mission in the United States. Although Alex still identifies as a Christian (his description of faith roughly reads like the Nicene Creed), he began to feel distant from the church once he began to realize that he is just “a normal human being,” despite his sexual orientation. It was the church’s teachings about people like him, he came to believe, that were incompatible with his lived experiences.
He saw that his peers were being caused great anguish by anti-gay teachings. He talks about how his many other Mormon LGBT acquaintances have considered suicide. The church, he determined, is not treating its queer siblings in a Christ-like manner.
“I think of a man who went out of his way to live with prostitutes and poor people, and those who were considered outsiders,” he says, speaking about Jesus.
Still, Alex found it easier to come out about his sexuality than about questions of faith, to which he says there is a greater stigma attached. “I told my mission president that I was gay, and it was fine,” he says, adding that the whole mission experience was generally positive. Back on campus, he won what the students call “Bishop Roulette”—the man in charge of deciding whether Alex gets an ecclesiastical endorsement wound up being open-minded. Alex has confided about his sexual orientation and his questions about the faith, and still got the endorsement needed to continue as a BYU student.
Alex’s main fear, like that of many queer students, is that those less understanding will assume that he left the faith because he is queer—that being queer, in other words, made him a bad person who rejects church teachings. But in truth he wants badly to be able to return into the fold.
“I think I am still at the point where I would come back to the church if changes happened,” Alex says. “Some aren’t [at that point anymore], and that’s okay.”
Others are not as lucky when it comes to their bishops. Brandon grew up near one of the BYU satellite campuses—a college town he describes as “the leftovers of BYU-Provo,“ and a college that’s “known for being the place that girls in the LDS religion go to get married.” He applied to the main campus in Provo because he didn’t want to live with his parents, and got in. Going there was a no-brainer.
But Brandon also has what he describes as a “problem” with pornography. Although he is ambivalent about organized religion and isn’t sure about the existence of God, he still values the mores instilled by a rather orthodox Mormon upbringing. (Consumption of pornographic materials is forbidden under LDS rules. An oft-cited 2009 study alleges that Utah actually leads the nation in per capita porn consumption, but countless LDS websites are set up to debunk that claim.) In conversations with his home bishop before returning for his second year at the Provo campus, he confessed his struggles with porn—not even the ones about him grappling with his faith more broadly.
“I remember in interviews crying because I felt so bad,” he says. In an effort to scare and shame Brandon out of consuming pornography, the bishop made him feel awful.
“At one point I ended up having to lie about not being on pornography anymore because I wanted so badly to get out of there.”
The bishop denied him the requisite ecclesiastical endorsement, saying that Brandon needed more time to work on his issues. Meanwhile, he was also struggling with depression and anxiety. Desperate to get out of his hometown, Brandon moved back to Provo anyway. There, he met with another bishop, to whom he confessed both his desire to stop watching pornography, and the previous bishop’s decision to deny him an endorsement.
And, with another go at Bishop Roulette, Brandon's confession landed in the right pocket. The new bishop gave his endorsement “almost immediately, the day I met with him.”
“You’re totally at the whims of your bishop and he can do whatever he likes, and it will be considered morally correct because there’s no one who’ll question it,” he says.
Now, “Bishop Roulette” is one of the questions in a complaint lodged with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities by an organization calling itself FreeBYU, the body in charge of Brigham Young University’s accreditation—which is up for renewal this year. Because Provo has such a high density of Mormons, moving just a block may change a student’s ward, a low-level unit of organization within the LDS faith. A different ward means a different bishop, and little uniformity in what counts as an offense worthy of rescinding the requisite ecclesiastical endorsement.
That, combined with the idea that a university education is supposed to be about the pursuit of truth, forms the basis of BYU triple alum Brad Levin’s complaint to BYU’s accrediting body. The policy toward lapsed Mormon students, he says, is in direct violation of its standards. Mormon students are not “intellectually free to examine thought, reason and perspectives of truth.”
“BYU students and faculty can’t speak out on this issue because there would be retaliation,” he says of the alumni-led effort.
His other concerns boil down to two main points: That BYU is unique among accredited schools in automatically expelling disaffiliated people, and that the fate of the overwhelming majority of students is in the hands of clergy—whose opinions and enforcement can vary widely—and not university officials.
That creates a feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. And it inhibits their freedom to pursue intellectual questions—a key plank of what a university accredited by the NCCU must enable.
“They’re paranoid,” Levin says of students. “Anyone can report on them for any reason.”
“FreeBYU argues that because the Honor Code does not articulate what it takes to be eligible for an ecclesiastical endorsement, and because in practice unaccountable Bishops make this decision for a variety of inconsistent reasons, BYU students’ intellectual and academic freedom is impermissibly burdened,” he elaborated in an online blog post.
University spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told The Daily Beast that the standards applied by bishops are not arbitrary.
“The bishops are asked to apply the same standards of the Honor Code,” she wrote. “Given they are ecclesiastical leaders to individual members of their congregations, they also have discretion to make ecclesiastical determinations in individual cases.”
She also said that a student can appeal a bishop’s ruling to the stake president, and that those without an ecclesiastical endorsement “can ask BYU to make an independent evaluation as to whether the student has been, is now, and will continue to abide by the requirements of the Honor Code.” (The Daily Beast sent a follow-up request for deeper information and statistics on the appeals process.)
But Levin speaks of fear from experience. Though he says he was a believing Mormon for most of his eight-year tenure at the university, first as an undergraduate and then in a joint MPA/JD program, Levin began to doubt as he wrote a book about church doctrine and homosexuality. When it became clear to him that the church’s top officials, whose words guided his life for so long, were wrong on the science of sexual orientation, “something snapped” inside him.
And the research and critical thinking skills the university taught him? They were getting him in trouble. His academic conclusions did not adhere to church doctrine. He felt like roommates could turn him in at any moment.
He ultimately published his book without the most provocative conclusions because of the difficulty of transferring graduate school work. Recently, he married outside the faith—a non-theist Israeli—and took her last name.
Years later, the pressures remain the same. Kathy began feeling a similar kind of academic censorship when she lost her faith. In humanities-oriented classes, she says, they would sometimes discuss the classic reading of a work of literature.
“We’re always constantly talking about the world and how we view it and how other people view it. And when I was believing, it was wonderful that we could talk about things from a gospel point of view,” she says. “And now that I’m not, I notice that our gospel point of view is, This is why we’re right, and why everyone else is wrong.”
There are other types of self-censorship, too. Many classes at the university begin with prayer, and Kathy finds herself raising her hand to volunteer when she fears others are starting to suspect her. She knows she’s lucky to live with her like-minded husband and not roommates, but the fear of being found out still weighs heavily on her.
In the youthful environment of BYU, Kathy thinks everyone is keenly aware of who is wearing—and who is supposed to wear—temple garments, a special kind of Mormon undergarment issued to those who have taken part in the endowment ceremony, typically before a mission or marriage. They are worn day and night. Kathy is paranoid that someone will notice she no longer wears hers, and typically chooses to layer plain undershirts to give the illusion that she is still there.
She rarely admits, even to friends, that she’s an atheist. She estimates the number of people that she’s told to be around three or four.
All that said, Kathy still raves about BYU. “I have loved, loved my time here,” she says.
If it weren’t for living in constant fear of expulsion, she says she would be a proud alumna.
Likewise, Alex, the queer Christian, feels strong ties to the university and the church. Like all students who spoke to The Daily Beast, Alex is convinced that LDS members are predominantly well-meaning and kind people. Students he’s confided in with his questions have overwhelmingly been respectful. If they were concerned, it was about his well-being, and how he was dealing with such a drastic life change.
But the rise of social media makes it unlikely that lapsed LDS students, who may have had trouble connecting with others who had similar questions for generations, will remain hidden.
“Just like the printing press was the great terror of the Catholic Church, social media is the great terror of the Mormon Church,” Alex says.
The university will have to contend with an ever-growing number of questioners who are less afraid to share heretical thoughts on social networks. “You see that other people also notice this, [and think] maybe I’m not crazy, maybe there’s some truth to this.”
Alex meets regularly with his bishop, who knows about his faith struggles. The bishop tries to get him to stay in the church, and Alex believes him to be well-intentioned. After all, the LDS Church believes it is the only path to salvation, and that’s his bishop’s primary concern.
“I still identify as a Mormon culturally and historically,” he says. “Being a Mormon is what I am.”
Jordan also fakes his belief, mostly once weekly in church. That’s part of why he decided not to serve a mission: He abhors lying, one of the positive traits instilled in him by his religious upbringing.
“If I served a mission, I would be lying every single day of my life,” he explains.
An agnostic friend had been denied endorsement by his bishop, but Jordan seems to have gotten lucky. He’s counting down the days until he can stop living a lie.
“I’ve had a letter written to my parents, a draft, that I want to send when I graduate,” Jordan says. “I’ve had it since freshman year.”
In it, Jordan explains his belief system, shying away from being too confrontational. It’s not his goal to convert, but rather to explain to his parents that—even without the organized faith—the moral values of Mormonism are still present in his desire to do good, and in that utilitarian way, to maximize happiness.
If there’s one thing he hates, though, it’s the term “ex-Mormon”: That’s what the church calls people it feels have fallen out of the faith.
“No, I didn’t lose it,” Jordan insists. “I just moved on. I’m not worse off because of it.”