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Law school accreditors are investigating Brigham Young University amid allegations that the LDS Church-owned institution's policies violate nondiscrimination standards by expelling students who live in same-sex relationships or leave the Mormon faith.
The American Bar Association (ABA) is reviewing the formal complaint from a group of BYU alumni pushing for LDS students who lose or change their faith to be allowed to finish their degree, said FreeBYU spokesman Brad Levin.
"There's increasing support and awareness," Levin said, pointing to a petition with more than 2,700 signatures, "even among faithful Mormons."
FreeBYU this summer added gay and transgender rights to their cause after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage nationwide. BYU also violates ABA nondiscrimination guidelines, Levin said, by forcing some LGBT members to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity or risk expulsion.
Students of other faiths may enter the Provo school of roughly 30,000 operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But breaking away from the LDS religion before graduation is against a conduct code signed by each student. So are homosexual relationships. Sex-reassignment surgery can lead to excommunication from the church, which would get students booted from the school.
The school's honor code also forbids drinking alcohol and sex before marriage, which are against the teachings of the Mormon church.
Religious institutions such as BYU have some leeway in tailoring their admissions and hiring processes to indicate a "preference" for people with a certain religious affiliation, according to the most recent ABA guidelines, so long as the preferences are clear before students and faculty come to campus. But the standards may not be used to limit academic freedom or to discriminate when it comes to admission or retention of students. The professional organization of attorneys and law students forbids schools from "taking action" based on race, religion, gender, nationality, sexuality, age or disability.
Levin's group is appealing a university-wide decision from a different accrediting group, which reviewed a similar complaint on the religious-freedom issue but found no violation on the university's part. The Northwestern Commission on Colleges and Universities is one of many accrediting bodies partly responsible for determining American colleges' standing with the federal government.
Mary Hoagland, assistant dean for external relations, said through a university spokeswoman that the school responded to a request for information from the ABA "a couple of months ago."
"We have been accredited by the ABA since 1974," Hoagland's statement reads, "and are confident that we continue to meet ABA standards."
Levin, who graduated from BYU in 2011 with a dual degree in law and public administration, believes the religion policy is "hypocritical" of a law school that holds conferences on religious freedom.
In October, one speaker at a religious-liberty conference hosted by BYU law canceled his talk in protest of the policy after Levin's group notified him of the rule.
In the past, university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins has stressed that the policy applies to students who have left the religion and not with those who struggle with their faith for a short time.
Officers with the ABA did not return a Monday request for comment.
If ABA investigators believe a school's counterargument fails to show it is compliant, the group's website says, they send investigators to campus, then pass results from that visit to an accrediting committee.
The law school's last accreditation review was during the 2011-2012 school year. The next formal review is scheduled for the 2018-2019 year.