The U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil-rights investigation into Brigham Young University’s un-written policies banning same-sex dating, focusing on disciplinary actions the private religious school takes against LGTBQ students.
The complaint came after the school said it would continue to enforce a ban on same-sex dating, despite removing that section from the written version of the school’s honor code, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Students can be punished for holding hands with or kissing someone of the same sex and disciplinary measures doled out by the school, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is harsher than those faced by heterosexual couples.
BYU removed its written ban on “homosexual behavior” in early 2020, prompting students to come out and publicly join the LGTBQ community. The school, which also bans things such as alcohol consumption, beards, and piercings, then issued a clarification a few weeks later, stating that same-sex dating is still prohibited, even if it is no longer expressly written in the honor code.
The reversal sparked a protest outside LDS headquarters, with LGBTQ students claiming the apparent reversal amounted to a trick aimed at getting students to “come out” and identify themselves to the school. The federal investigation from the department’s Office for Civil Rights started late last year under Title IX, the law that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex in schools.
University spokeswoman Carri Jenkins acknowledged the investigation but said in a statement that BYU is within its rights to enforce the church’s policies against same-sex relationships, adding that BYU does not anticipate any further action.
“BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Jenkins said.
While the church may have softened its approach in recent years, it still maintains doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage.
A Department of Education (DOE) spokesperson confirmed an investigation was opened in October, but did not elaborate. As a private religious school, BYU does have religious exemptions from Title IX as it related to sexuality and gender expression.
Federal scrutiny such as the spotlight under which BYU currently finds itself is rare at church-owned schools, typically occurring only when serious or potentially systemic issues are suspected, according to Michael Austin, a BYU graduate and vice president at the University of Evansville a private Methodist school in Indiana.
“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” he told the Tribune, as the new investigation appears to center around whether those exemptions allow faith-based discipline for LGBTQ students, when the behavior is neither directly related to education nor expressly prohibited in its written honor code.
BYU’s president, Kevin Worthen, argued those exemptions do apply, and everyone who attends or works at the university agrees to follow the honor code and “voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” according to a letter he wrote to the DOE in November 2021.
In a response obtained by the Tribune, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights affirmed the school does have some religious exemptions but the department had to investigate whether the complaint it received falls under those exemptions.
LGBTQ rights have been a major issue in recent years at the school, located in Provo, UT. A lawsuit filed by several students last year alleges discrimination, with one recent lesbian graduate claiming she lost her university job because her boss didn’t think she looked “feminine enough.”
BYU has also banned protests near the iconic letter “Y” after activists lit the letter up in rainbow colors.
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