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Feds dismiss lawsuit against BYU over school’s treatment of LGBTQ students

This is not the outcome that LGBTQ students had hoped for.

After months of investigation, the US Department of Education has dismissed a complaint filed against Brigham Young University over the private religious school’s treatment of its gay students.

In a letter this week, investigators said the school was rightly exempt from federal laws prohibiting gender discrimination. The university will be allowed to continue disciplining those who break its rules prohibiting same-sex relations.

“I wanted to believe something would come out of it,” said Madi Hawes, a BYU sophomore who is bisexual. “I had hope, but that was it, hope.”

Disappointment spread through the LGBTQ student community on Thursday. Many saw the move as the latest in a string of recent events they see as targeting those who are gay at the school, run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some said on Twitter that they don’t know how to move forward now. A few said the decision brought them to tears.

Hawes added: “We knew the church, and therefore our school, was OK to discriminate against us. But now the government has approved it. We do not agree.

BYU, however, released a statement on Thursday, announcing the decision to drop the investigation. He said he had foreseen that he would be absolved. And some joined in patting the school on the back for what they saw as a victory. That includes U.S. Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, who defended the decision on Twitter as a triumph for “religious freedom and higher education”.

The school said the dismissal affirms “the freedom to operate a religious university without sacrificing distinctive religious beliefs.”

Federal investigators were first alerted to a possible problem at the school after a complaint was filed in response to changes to the school’s strict honor code in the spring of 2020.

At the time, the university removed a controversial section of the rules that prohibited “homosexual behavior”. Some students celebrated, coming out openly queer after, they said, some school officials told them it was OK. But a few weeks later, the school clarified that same-sex partnerships would still be banned, even though the prohibition was no longer expressly written.

Those who act against this instruction by holding hands or kissing, according to the administrators, could continue to be sanctioned. LGBTQ students protested, with some saying they felt cheated into coming out.

The investigation, led by the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education, sought to determine whether such actions by BYU are permitted because it is a private school or whether they violate the rights of LGBTQ students, disciplining them more harshly than their heterosexual peers. who do not suffer the same consequences for similar romantic behavior.

The department’s letter said that because BYU had 15 approved exemptions to Title IX, the federal law that protects against gender discrimination in schools, it was acting within its rights. Investigators also noted that as such they had no authority to investigate further.

They ended the letter by noting that BYU cannot “harass, coerce, intimidate, discriminate against, or retaliate against any individual” who filed the complaint. They also said the school could still face federal prosecution, even if a violation was not found.

LGBTQ student reaction

For many, the decision seems to be the end of the road.

“I don’t know how long we’ll let ‘religious freedom’ supersede gay rights,” said Zachary Ibarra, a gay Latter-day Saint who graduated from BYU in 2018. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but this is always deeply disappointing. When will the rights of gay students be respected by law without exception? »

Some had seen the federal inquiry as a chance for change and for gay students to be accepted into school.

This type of federal review is rare and usually only occurs in places where there are believed to be potential systemic or serious issues. The students say they believed it was happening at BYU and expected the government to intervene to end the discrimination.

Now, they say, they are disappointed but not surprised.

“The Department of Education’s decision is almost as heartbreaking as BYU’s coordinated campaign against its gay students,” said Cal Burke, a recent BYU student who is gay.

Last year, a professor publicly referred to Burke as a Book of Mormon term associated with an antichrist. The school declined to say whether it would take action against the teacher. He thinks BYU picks and chooses what it wants to enforce, creating an especially difficult environment for LGBTQ students who don’t know if they’ll be reported for something minor.

But Burke said Thursday he did not plan to end the fight.

“We gay students will never give up because we are right and God is on our side,” he said. “We will not give up until all gay Latter-day Saints are free, safe, and loved.”

(Isaac Hale | Special for The Tribune) People join in for a Utah Pride Week party on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

The investigation into BYU, which was officially opened in October last year, came after the school has repeatedly been in the national spotlight over the past two years for its treatment of LGBTQ students. and which many have rejected.

Last year, several students signed a lawsuit, alleging they were discriminated against because of their identity. And a group of students spoke out against the school’s policy by lighting up the iconic “Y” on the mountain above BYU in rainbow colors.

In response, the university has now banned protests on that property.

And, last fall, a high-ranking LDS Church apostle came to campus and criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage. Leader Jeffrey Holland said they should instead take up their intellectual “muskets” to uphold “the doctrine of the family and…marriage as a union of one man and one woman”.

It’s been a back-and-forth that Burke says won’t end with this decision by federal investigators.

Hawes also added, “It’s not an exemption from a privilege like scholarships or internship opportunities, it’s an exemption from the human right to a safe environment.” And she plans to continue to raise this concern.

Religious exemptions

The Salt Lake Tribune submitted a public records request for a copy of the complaint and other documents. That’s still pending, but in response, a department official called the school’s investigation “extensive” and “systemic,” saying there were hundreds of pages of documents collected.

It is unclear what was collected by investigators and why so much was invested in an investigation that was quickly closed. The Ministry of Education only confirmed on Thursday that the case had been closed.

While glad it was opened, attorney Paul Southwick guessed it wouldn’t amount to any action against BYU.

Southwick is the director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, which is leading the lawsuit against BYU and other religious schools on Title IX. They are pushing for private schools not to have exemptions from the law as long as they accept federal funding, which BYU does with student grants and loans.

He said he has seen other cases in religious schools that were quickly closed because they have exemptions.

On Thursday, he called the result “disappointing and difficult for students hoping for help from their government, but not unexpected in light of the broad religious exemption that is part of Title IX.”

(George Frey | Special for The Tribune) Students and others gather outside the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center on the Brigham Young University campus to protest BYU’s reversal of a recently announced policy change on LGBTQ students on March 5, 2020, in Prov.

BYU began receiving Title IX religious exemptions in 1976, becoming the first school to do so and leading the charge for private universities across the country to follow.

In a strongly worded letter to the then-Department of Education, then-BYU President Dallin Oaks bristled at the fact that the federal government had the power to control or limit BYU, according to an article on Title IX in Higher Education from the Kansas Law Review.

These exemptions continue to apply at BYU today, among 15 total exemptions the school has now related to sexuality and gender expression.

Its protected actions include the ability to enforce its own preferences when recruiting and admitting students and granting financial aid. For example, if a student is openly gay, BYU is allowed by law to deny them a scholarship. The school may also limit toilet use based on the sex assigned at birth.

In its Thursday statement, BYU noted, “Title IX also states that it ‘does not apply’ to a religious institution to the extent that the requirements of Title IX are inconsistent with the organization’s religious principles. nun who controls the institution. BYU has long recognized that it is subject to Title IX, and over the years the OCR has recognized the university’s religious exemption on certain matters.

‘Agree to respect’

The university’s current president, Kevin Worthen, had written in a letter to the Department of Education last November, shortly after receiving the notice of investigation, that all students were held to the same honor code.

“All BYU students, faculty, administrators, and staff,” he wrote, “agree to the honor code of the Church’s educational system and thereby ‘voluntarily pledge to lead their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ”.

Removing the section on “homosexual behavior” in February 2020 does not matter. The rule can still be enforced, he said. It was supported by the dismissal of the complaint.

The school president also wrote that he cannot be forced to implement policies “that contradict the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ concerning the distinction between men and women, the eternal nature of gender or God’s laws of chastity and marriage”.

He says the school will welcome and support all students, including those who are LGBTQ, as long as they “agree to live by the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU Chairman Kevin J. Worthen speaks at the Marriott Center Thursday, April 21, 2016.

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Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion