New employment policy raises ‘loyalty’ oath concerns at BYU

Prospective hires must have temple recommends and current faculty members and staffers are being asked to “opt in.” So what happens if they don’t?

(The Salt Lake Tribune) The bell tower on the campus of BYU in Provo.

In recent weeks, Brigham Young University has enacted a kind of “loyalty” oath for new hires at any of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ educational campuses — and it goes beyond established questions of belief and behavior.

On top of the traditional “recommend” standards, which are required for entrance to any of the faith’s sacred temples, candidates are being asked: Do they support church doctrine on marriage, family and gender? Do they say anything that would lead others to doubt the doctrine or teachings? Have they used pornography during the past few years?

For more than a decade, the hiring process “has involved asking specific questions about the worthiness, belief and character of those who will be hired, in addition to a question about temple worthiness,” says BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins. “The new questions are now consistent for all [Church Educational System] institutions.”

Current employees, meanwhile, are expected to sign “voluntarily” the employment/recommend agreement, which also alerts them that the church “may adjust the criteria for a temple recommend from time to time.”

Those employees — whether they work as teachers, coaches, cooks, counselors or custodians — who are being asked to “opt in” are left wondering how secure their futures are at the school if they don’t.

“Will there be unofficial, unwritten consequences for saying no? Which choice — in or out — would make someone more susceptible to losing their job?” asks a By Common Consent poster and CES employee who goes by “Abigail J.” “And what will happen if the current temple recommend questions change? Does opting in mean agreeing that anything that might ever be part of a temple recommend interview is a legitimate condition of employment at BYU?”

Hesitancy about the policy “does not suggest an unwillingness to hold a temple recommend, but from not understanding the reasons for the new policy and the possible future consequences of opting in,” the blogger writes. “...Maybe the lack of transparency is not part of a loyalty test but simply a giant miscommunication that will be remedied shortly.”

One thing seems clear, though: Rising in the university ranks may not be available to those who don’t opt in.

“Current BYU faculty and personnel have been invited to adopt the new standard, but it will be their choice,” Jenkins says. “Leadership positions in the university come with high expectations for professional excellence and spiritual leadership.”

Bishops as gatekeepers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Brigham Young on the BYU campus in Provo in 2018.

The updated policy also has implications for the faith of faculty members, making Latter-day Saint bishops and (regional) stake presidents — male volunteer leaders who may or may not be educators themselves — the arbiters of adherence to what some see as ambiguous doctrinal rules.

BYU is ceding the power to fire employees to a lay clergyman “who knows nothing about what the faculty member does, what they teach, or what their academic strengths are,” says Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Evansville. “I could never run a university if every Methodist pastor in Evansville could fire any of my faculty members at any minute.”

It does provide BYU a defense against “any unlawful-termination lawsuits,” he says. “But that’s not how you want to run a school or a church.”

The second problem is personal, Austin says. It eliminates most pastoral counseling for faculty by turning bishops into prospective or current employers, conducting job interviews.

Professors struggling with porn addiction, marital issues or a faith crisis would not want to go to their bishop for counseling, he says, for fear of losing their job.

The recommend policy also muddies motives, says a BYU professor who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. “Am I going to church because I am a sincere believer committed to its mission or am I going to church because I would lose my job if I didn’t?”

The university has “robbed me of the joys of paying tithing,” the professor says, “because it is not a freewill offering any more.”

Upping the ante

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) General authority Seventy Clark G. Gilbert, the church's commissioner of education, speaks at General Conference on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Similar concerns arose in 1996, when then-BYU President Merrill Bateman announced that all faculty members would have to be “eligible for a temple recommend,” but he did not say they had to actually have one.

BYU folklorist William A. Wilson, who died in 2016, was among those who objected.

“The policy diminishes the satisfaction I, and I suspect others, feel in holding a temple recommend,” Wilson wrote in a letter to the American Association of University Professors. “I received my first recommend 42 years ago, have held one continuously since then, and hope always to live worthily enough to do so. For me, the recommend is a sacred document not to be sullied with any worldly concerns like job security.”

Wilson argued, according to a history of BYU, that essentially giving ecclesiastical leaders control over faculty members’ continuing status could “place the professional lives of the faculty in the hands of individuals who often do not understand the nature of intellectual inquiry, and who, while they understand the need to balance reason with faith, may be hostile to the parallel need to balance faith with reason.”

Since then, Austin says, the ecclesiastical endorsement for faculty evolved away from being “eligible for a temple recommend” to becoming more in line with the student ecclesiastical endorsement, which varied from bishop to bishop.

The latest policy states that all new CES employees — and existing staffers who opt in — must actually have a current recommend.

“It is critical that each employee represent the mission, values and goals of [the church],” general authority Seventy Clark Gilbert, the church’s commissioner of education, explained in a news release. “These updates reflect the expectations we have for each employee to continue to engage fully in the spiritual mission that is central to each CES institution. We are grateful to have such remarkable and committed employees.”

Echoing Wilson and others, Austin says, is the issue of clergy confidentiality.

At Protestant schools, “you can seek counseling without getting turned in. Administrators trust their faculty to report on their own worthiness,” he says, while at Catholic universities, “priests will go to jail before they reveal what was said in a confessional.”

At BYU and other church schools, bishops are instructed to “share concerns” they might have “about recommending this member” for employment.

Jenkins defends this approach, saying “candidates give consent for their priesthood leaders to share information with the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office [which Gilbert heads] to the extent it is related to the standards of employment.”

And those standards are all about religion.

Doctrinal ambiguity

In regards to some of the questions being asked of prospective hires, some faculty wonder, for instance, what it means to support church leadership and the doctrine on marriage, family and gender.

Does it mean opposing same-sex marriage? Does it mean agreeing with the faith’s proclamation on the family?

Church leaders have said Latter-day Saints can be in favor of same-sex marriage and get a recommend.

“We have individual members in the church with a variety of different opinions, beliefs and positions on these issues and other issues,” apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in 2015. " ... In our view, it doesn’t really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders — if that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.”

These issues with individuals are not “resolved at church headquarters,” apostle Dallin H. Oaks, now in the governing First Presidency, added, “but require the prayerful consideration of a [local] bishop.”

That, however, might be part of the problem for BYU faculty — especially new hires. Some bishops might be more open in their understanding of the church’s stance on marriage, family and gender, while others could be rigid.

“The number one concern for CES employees right now is our students and especially our LGBTQ students,” says “Abigail J.,” the BCC blogger who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “We wonder if the littlest bit of allyship or love or support will be grounds for punishment.”

Many faculty and staff are “wrestling with that,” she says. “We worry generally that church education is becoming a more and more inhospitable place for so many.”

But these Latter-day Saint teachers don’t plan to “change our love and support,” she says. “We will remain there for the students.”

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