First things first: Religion News Service deserves praise for publishing a story about the doctrinal code at a private religious university that actually discusses the contents of said code.
Here is the shocking part. This long news feature about Brigham Young University even mentions, near the end, that students who disagree with the school’s teachings actually have their own reasons to choose to live and study on this campus. Is free will involved? This is a mystery. Hold that thought.
However, I would note that this recent RNS report — “BYU officially restores honor code ban on ‘same-sex romantic behavior’” — leaves a crucial, related question unanswered: Do students actually SIGN the doctrinal code as part of enrollment? In other words, do they pledge to follow, or not to openly oppose, the contents of the code?
That’s a logical question, since this story makes it clear that students living in a voluntary community defined by these doctrines are still free to oppose them in public media.
In fact, the RNS story does not include material from an interview with a single student, faculty member, parent or trustee who defends the doctrinal code. This could be a statement about RNS journalism doctrines (Why quote people who are wrong?) or it may reflect the reality that it is now more controversial to openly support the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than it is to oppose them. Here is the story’s overture:
LGBTQ students at Brigham Young University celebrated three years ago when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ flagship school quietly deleted from the honor code a ban on “homosexual behavior.” For the first time, many students began holding hands or kissing in public. Others took the moment to come out as queer.
Then, a month later, the Church Educational System administrators who oversee BYU’s campuses issued a statement clarifying that despite the deleted language, “same-sex romantic behavior” wasn’t compatible with the honor code.
Last week, the Church Educational System restored language to the code explicitly prohibiting LGBTQ affection — now called “same-sex romantic behavior.” Though the ban had never really lost its effect, for some students the official restoration of it still felt like a gut punch.
Concerning that signing-on-the-dotted-line question:
The honor code, a set of guidelines that employees and students are expected to follow, is enforced by the administration on the main campus in Provo, Utah, as well as BYU–Idaho, BYU–Hawaii and Ensign College. It instructs all community members to live “a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman.” The new language adds that “Living a chaste and virtuous life also includes abstaining from same-sex romantic behavior.”
The implication is that honoring the code is a condition of employment or enrollment.
However, in legal terms, it is important for journalists to ask if members of this voluntary community have a chance — after hearing the contents of the code explained — to sign a document or not. This matters if and when opponents of school teachings choose to take their opposition to the next level. For example: How does the code affect dorm life for LGBTQ+ students? Reporters need to ask that question.
The story does a fine job, as it should, of explaining the BYU arguments from the point of view of those who want to see LDS teachings evolve and change. Consider this important block of material.
In 2019, Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reversed a 2015 policy that categorized same-sex LDS couples as “apostates” and that barred their children from religious rituals, including baptism unless they received permission from top church leaders.
The 2019 reversal of that policy allowed lay bishops to authorize the baptism of children of LGBTQ parents. In a 2019 devotional given at BYU, Nelson also clarified that while the church still opposed gay marriage, “homosexual immorality would be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.”
[Psychology major] Purcell argued that the new honor code language means queer couples can be disciplined even if they are following the same chastity guidelines assigned to straight couples. This, she said, is out of step with the church’s overall policy.
“Depending on where you are, who your religious leaders are, you can actually date people of the same sex with very little church repercussions,” said Purcell, 20, who is also president of the Raynbow Collective. “At BYU, that usually gray line within the church is a hard line. Anything that they deem homosexual behavior, or same-sex romantic behavior, is not allowed.”
That clarity may, of course, exist for legal reasons. In the United States, judges are expecting voluntary religious communities to be explicit about the doctrines that they choose to defend with actions that critics can accurately label as, to some degree, discriminatory. This is true at private schools on the doctrinal left and the right.
Now, let’s consider the logical question that I raised at the top of this post — as addressed by student Evelyn Telford, one of the vice presidents of the Understanding Sexuality, Gender & Allyship organization on the BYU campus.
Telford said she’s often asked why queer students come to BYU in the first place. She said academic opportunities, location, affordability and family ties at BYU are all factors students might consider, adding that there are other students who, like her, didn’t realize they were queer until getting to college.
“It’s such a personal decision to be at BYU, and your sexuality shouldn’t mean you don’t deserve a place there,” she said.
Ah, but what about signing that honor code? Does that happen? What does that mean?
A personal note: As someone with years of experience teaching at private religious colleges, the answer may be as simple as this — that the student’s parents are willing to write tuition checks for the conservative religious school, but not for a competing secular or liberal religious option.
Again, journalists should ask questions about this. Follow the money. Do parents want to defend the faith, while their children are now conflicted?
In conclusion, let me note that readers may want to seek out this opinion piece — “One BYU to rule them all … for better or for worse” — offering even more progressive RNS content on this story. Jane Riess, author of the “Flunking Sainthood” column, notes the following about the BYU application process:
… [It’s] probably a blessing that the church has also instituted a standardized, uniform script for bishops to follow when doing ecclesiastical endorsements for any of the church-owned schools.
The new interview template is similar to that of a temple recommend interview, but not the same. The church says that’s because the goals of the two kinds of interviews are different: “There is a difference in the standard of worthiness to receive saving ordinances in the house of the Lord and being eligible to attend a CES (Church Education System) institution as a student.”
In the BYU interview, there’s an interesting emphasis on “striving.” Some version of the word comes up five times in the template’s 12 questions. The focus seems to be on progress, not perfection. They want students doing their best to develop a testimony of God and Jesus, be honest, work toward “moral cleanliness” (which is not defined), sustain their church leaders and generally live the teachings of the church.
Ah, “striving.” The issue is not perfection. The issue is whether a student is willing to “strive” to live according to the honor code that they (maybe) have signed.
Stay tuned. Any lawsuits looming ahead?
FIRST IMAGE: Logo from the Understanding Sexuality, Gender, and Allyship homepage, posted by members at Brigham Young University.