Ed Department drops Title IX investigation of BYU’s treatment of LGBTQ students

  • The U.S. Department of Education dismissed a complaint alleging Brigham Young University illegally discriminates against LGBTQ students.
  • A complaint filed in 2020 said BYU discriminates against students who are in same-sex relationships by saying their relationships violate the university’s Honor Code. But the case is rendered moot by religious exemptions the private nonprofit institutuiton in Utah has secured from Title IX, the federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sex, according to a Feb. 8 letter from Sandra Roesti, a supervisory attorney at the Ed Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • BYU is exempt from 15 Title IX regulations in cases where those regulations conflict with the religious tenets of its controlling church, according to the letter. Therefore, OCR lacks jurisdiction over the allegations, Roesti wrote. The university is controlled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church.

Dive Insight:

OCR’s decision brings to a close an investigation that was widely expected to clear BYU legally. The university became the first higher ed institution to formally receive a Title IX exemption in 1976, and experts said it didn’t appear to have overstepped its religious exemptions in this situation.

Recent events at BYU drew attention to the case, which can also be read as an early indicator of the Ed Department’s priorities under President Joe Biden.

Early in 2020, the university removed from its Honor Code a section forbidding all forms of same-sex intimacy. LGBTQ students initially viewed the change as allowing them to freely take actions, such as visibly dating, holding hands or kissing members of the same sex. But the university and the church soon said same-sex romantic activity was still not allowed under church doctrine, which permits marriage only between a man and a woman.

The Honor Code says the university exists to “provide an education in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It also says those studying at or working at the university should “live a chaste and virtuous life” and abstain from sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.

BYU did not learn of the discrimination complaint until October 2021, according to a statement it released. The university then sent a letter to the Ed Department in November restating the religious exemptions it claims. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon confirmed its exemptions in January.

“BYU had anticipated that OCR would dismiss the complaint 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,” the university’s statement said Thursday. 

The university also pointed to portions of a letter from the institution’s president, Kevin Worthen. Worthen wrote that the university will support efforts to “find common ground on these issues as we strive to follow Jesus Christ’s example of love and fairness for all of God’s children.”

LGBTQ students and alumni told The Salt Lake Tribune they were heartbroken but not necessarily surprised by the Ed Department’s decision.

“I’m not sure how long we will allow ‘religious liberty’ to supersede the rights of queer people,” Zachary Ibarra, a gay Latter-day Saint and 2018 BYU graduate, told the newspaper. Others told the Tribune they would continue fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus and in the church.

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