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Education Dept. Says BYU Can Discriminate Against Queer Students

Brigham Young University

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has dismissed a complaint against Brigham Young University that alleged BYU violated federal law by discriminating against LGBTQ+ students.

The university is exempt from some aspects of the law in question because of its religious affiliation, the Office of Civil Rights ruled. The law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

The complaint specifically addressed BYU’s ban on same-sex dating. The Provo, Utah, school, affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormon Church), removed language banning “homosexual behavior” from its Honor Code in 2020, leading some students to celebrate and come out. But then the administration clarified that same-sex romantic relationships and displays of affection were still prohibited, even if that was not written into the Honor Code. A complaint was filed with the Office of Civil Rights — the person who filed it has not been identified — and the OCR began an investigation.

In a letter dated Tuesday, OCR supervisory attorney Sandra Roesti wrote to BYU officials that while the university is subject to Title IX overall, it is exempt from provisions that would conflict with LDS religious beliefs, so the agency “lacks jurisdiction to address the complaint’s allegations.” She advised that BYU must not retaliate against anyone who files a complaint.

BYU issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the dismissal and saying it was expected “because OCR has repeatedly recognized BYU’s religious exemption for Title IX requirements that are not consistent with the religious tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It also quoted a letter that the university’s president, Kevin Worthen, had sent to OCR, saying, “We simultaneously stand firm in our religious beliefs and reiterate our love and respect for each member of the campus community.”

Some of those members and their allies are upset, however. “I’m not sure how long we will allow ‘religious liberty’ to supersede the rights of queer people,” Zachary Ibarra, a gay Mormon and recent BYU graduate, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I should not be surprised, but it is still deeply disappointing. When will the rights of queer students be upheld to the law without exception?”

Madi Hawes, a BYU sophomore and a leader of the school’s unofficial LGBTQ+ group, told NBC News the speed of the dismissal was particularly painful. “I’m almost compelled to say that I was heartbroken, but I honestly wasn’t, because as much as I wanted something to happen, I didn’t expect anything to happen,” she added. “While I was hopeful, there wasn’t much faith backing up that hope. It was blind hope that I could even recognize as blind hope."

The Religious Exemptions Accountability Project, which fights anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination at religiously affiliated schools that receive taxpayer funds, released a statement denouncing the dismissal. “This is another example of the federal government siding with discrimination and powerful institutions like BYU at the expense of vulnerable LGBTQ+ students,” said REAP Director Paul Carlos Southwick. “By dismissing this investigation, the federal government has not only dashed the hopes of many LGBTQ+ students who saw the investigation as a sign of good things to come, but it has placed the government’s stamp of approval on BYU’s discriminatory practices, which the government not only funds, but has now formally handed out a license to discriminate.”  

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