Law Schools

BYU law school says ABA probe is closed; group had alleged religious discrimination

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The ABA has dropped its probe of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, according to the school and a group that complained about alleged religious discrimination by the school.

The group FreeBYU says the probe was dropped after the school tweaked its policies, report the Salt Lake Tribune, the Daily Herald, (sub. req.) KSL and KUTV.

FreeBYU says it sought the probe 10 months ago because of law school policies that call for the expulsion of students who leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that bar homosexual behavior. Wording in the school policy about exceptions to the expulsion requirement has been changed and appears to broaden the circumstances in which students can get an exception, the group says.

The ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar cannot comment on the matter as dictated by its rules, according to Barry Currier, the ABA’s managing director of accreditation and legal education.

The school’s announcement is here and FreeBYU’s press release is here. FreeBYU also posted the July 14 letter informing the school of the ABA decision.

Students who enter BYU’s law school agree to honor the BYU honor code, which requires an annual endorsement by an ecclesiastical leader, no matter what their faith, according to Carri Jenkins, assistant to the president for university communications at Brigham Young University. BYU charges students who are members of the LDS church half the amount of students who are not part of the church.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lose their ecclesiastical endorsement and their good honor code standing if they go through the formal process of removing their names from LDS Church records, Jenkins tells the ABA Journal. Students who lose their honor code standing are not allowed to stay and graduate from BYU, the policy says.

Students may petition for an exception to an ecclesiastical endorsement, however. According to FreeBYU, the school changed the language relating to the exception, and no longer requires students to show “unusual” or “extenuating circumstances” to qualify. In addition, students no longer have to sign a release as part of the appeal process that allows the university to communicate with the student’s faith leader.

Jenkins tells the ABA Journal that the primary change to its policy is the wording that allows a student to choose whether or not to sign the release. “As we stated earlier this month on the law school’s website, we appreciate the fact that the ABA has rejected the complaint and has closed the matter,” she said in an email.

ABA standards (PDF) bar accredited law schools from refusing to admit or detain students on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability. Religiously affiliated schools may give preference to applicants and faculty members of the same faith, but they can’t deny admission or retention because of religion and the other characteristics.

Jenkins told the ABA Journal in April that, in the last five years, no law students were expelled or put on probation in regards to religious beliefs or behavior related to homosexuality.

Jenkins says the minor adjustments to the honor code were made before the school heard from the ABA. “The university is constantly thinking through questions and making adjustments when warranted,” she said.

FreeBYU spokesman Brad Levin believes the changes were made because of the group’s complaint. “We are glad to see some improvement, but certainly, not what we were seeking,” he told the Daily Herald.

Updated on Aug. 20 to include comments from Jenkins.

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