LGBT+ students remain sceptical after conservative university lifts ban on ‘homosexual behaviour’

Doubts abound whether the ban being lifted is in word alone, as it is replaced with 'case-by-case' reviews

Marisa Iati
Sunday 23 February 2020 23:16
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Brigham Young university lifts ban on ‘homosexual behaviour’

When LGBT+ students at Brigham Young University caught wind of the change, they ran to the statue of the university's namesake to celebrate.

Women kissed women and men kissed men on Wednesday, extolling the school's removal of a longtime ban on “homosexual behavior” in the honour code that had left some students afraid even to hug or hold hands with friends of the same gender.

Then the university took to Twitter to issue a clarification that turned many overjoyed students suddenly sceptical of whether the revision meant anything at all.

“Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the honour Code remain the same,” the university wrote. “The honour Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case-by-case basis.”

The policy that outlawed “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feeling” used to prompt students to hide their same-sex relationships for fear of being called into the honour code office to face a variety of punishments. For the university, the ban served as a reminder that students were expected to abide by the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the school.

In announcing the updated honour code on Wednesday, representatives of the school said the changes brought the code into fuller alignment with their religious leaders. The church in April revised its teaching on people in same-sex marriages to say that although such a union was “a serious transgression,” same-sex spouses were no longer considered “apostates.” Children of same-sex couples also became eligible for baptism.

As the church's teaching on same-sex relationships evolves, Brigham Young University may have removed specific rules about same-sex intimacy from its honour code to leave “enough room to maneuver to what the church is doing, rather than having to go back and change all the rules because you guessed wrong,” said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.

The policy change exemplifies how religious schools are trying to balance aligning their conduct codes with their faiths and implementing clear rules and boundaries for an increasingly law-focused society, he said.

“When you're approaching, at a religious school, an honour system, you're thinking about salvation and a person's faith,” Mr Lake said. “If there's discipline, I think the intention is to promote the evolution of faith and spirituality.”

The law's impact on religious universities has come into clearer focus recently as the Supreme Court considers whether a part of federal law prohibiting workplace discrimination “because of sex” extends to sexual orientation. A ruling that sexual orientation discrimination is banned in workplace law would probably also apply to Title IX's (a federal law in the Education Amendments Act of 1972) ban on discrimination in education, Mr Lake said.

A spokesman for Brigham Young University, whose main campus is in Provo, Utah, on Friday said administrators would guide each student “according to the principles outlined in the honour Code.” The spokesman, Todd Hollingshead, added that members of the honour code office welcomed the chance to keep meeting with students about their questions.

“We believe that removing the more prescriptive language from the honour Code is helpful for our LGBTQ students,” he said. “We want our LGBTQ students to feel welcome and included on our campus.”

The change to the honour code was first reported by the Salt Lake Tribune and the Daily Herald.

Controversy heightened around the school's honour code in April, when an Instagram account highlighting students' frustrations attracted widespread attention. Students claimed that the honour code office asked inappropriate and invasive questions, doled out overly harsh discipline and encouraged people to snitch on each other, among other alleged offenses.

LGBTQ students this week expressed relief at the decreased likelihood that they would be disciplined for cuddling during a movie. But they said they also worried about the ambiguity of the university's statement that the honour code's “principles” have not changed.

In Jaclyn Foster's time at the school, she said the sexual activity part of the honour code was heavily enforced. Some LGBTQ students were called into the honour code office for having an account on a dating app, Ms Foster said, and punishments ranged from completing service hours to enduring a probationary period when they could not register for new classes.

Ms Foster, who graduated in 2018 and identifies as bisexual, agreed that the university should clarify its new policy to avoid having “invisible lines in the sand.”

“The honour code is essentially a contract,” she said. “And in any kind of contract, you need to have the parameters spelled out a little more clearly.”

The elimination of the “homosexual behavior” ban aroused opposition among more theologically traditional students and alumni who created a Twitter account to lobby against the change. People in favour of the update launched their own Twitter account under the same name to fight back.

Protests at Brigham Young over the honour code on 12 April 2019 (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP)

By the end of Thursday, students who said they had met with the honour code office were telling their peers that the only off-limits romantic behaviors for LGBTQ students were dating with intent to marry and violating the church's Law of Chastity, which teaches that members should have sexual interactions only with their spouse.

“If a straight person wouldn't get in trouble for it neither will you,” one student wrote to summarise his understanding of the university's new policy.

In response to a question about whether the students' statements online accurately reflected the university's approach, Mr Hollingshead said only that administrators were glad students were meeting with the honour code office to address their concerns.

Gary Pavela, co-founder of Integrity Seminars, which offers an seminar on academic integrity for students, said honour codes need to be specific and based on students' consensus. He said Brigham Young University should clarify what it means by deleting its policy on “homosexual behavior” so that students know what administrators expect of them.

Calvin Burke, a junior at the school who identifies as gay, said the removal of the code's “homosexual behavior” section was a compassionate move that would give students more faith in an office that is central to students' experience on campus.

“With this update, it takes a lot of that tension away, and there's less of that fear going around,” Mr Burke said. “But you can definitely tell for sure that I think we're all, as a campus and a community, pretty confused.”

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