Dept. of Education Launches Investigation Into School’s Treatment of Queer Students

A civil-rights investigation was recently opened by The U.S. Department of Education in regards to the treatment of LGBTQ+ students at Brigham Young University (BYU). Some believe the University’s behavior has violated Title IX, a gender equality law that has been in place for over 50 years.

Mr. Rollins, a government teacher at CHHS, further explains Title IX. “[Title IX] is a law based in sex or gender…it originally was put to work trying to even out the disparity between men’s opportunities in education to women’s opportunities in education. It has since, though,” Rollins says, “stretched to things like sexuality.” Title IX ties into the BYU issue due to the Department of Education’s “Notice of Interpretation” in June of 2021 that confirmed its application to sexuality and gender identity. 

In 2020, BYU removed a section of their Honor Code regarding sexuality, and many students interpreted that as the school removing the ban on queer relationships. This compelled a lot of previously-closeted students to come out as queer. However, in the weeks following this decision, BYU announced that they would still be enforcing said ban as it was part of the school’s policy. 

This event and many others like it have piled up over the years, causing some to form negative opinions regarding Brigham Young University’s treatment of queer students. Though the ban itself might seem like it would be the biggest issue, surprisingly, numerous students are much more concerned about the discrimination it causes around the school.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported an incident in April of 2021 when a prominent professor at BYU, Hank Smith, called an LDS queer student, Calvin Burke, “Korihor.” Korihor  was known in the Book of Mormon, a Latter-Day Saint scriptural text, as an “anti-Christ.” Smith apologized and the school took no public action regarding Smith’s statement. Carolyn Gassert, a leader of the University’s unofficial LGBTQ+ student club, told the Tribune that this affair was “terrifying for other students who are gay.” She also explained that it was showing the students “that professors could attack students for being gay and not face any repercussions.”

Due to the honor code’s position on homosexual relationships, some professors and students have become hostile towards members of the LGBTQ+ community that attend BYU. This issue is the main concern of many and the greater part of those opposed believe it to be the root of the investigation.

Brigham Young University believes that their policy is protected by the religious exemptions to Title IX that they have previously been granted. The organization argues that the free exercise clause in the First Amendment protects their right to these exemptions as it establishes the free exercise of religion in our country. In a letter to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the president of the institution, Kevin Worthen, writes, “BYU affirms that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law includes the freedom to operate a religious university without sacrificing distinctive religious beliefs or practices.”

Religious exemption falls into a gray area of law; at what point does a law come before the free exercise clause? “We haven’t encountered a limit yet as to how far a religious school can go in applying for exemptions to Title IX,” Mr. Rollins explains. “There’s never been a boundary set because all religious exemptions that have been applied for through the Department of Education have been accepted.”

Faith Bryce, a senior at Copper Hills, expresses her opinion on the exemptions: “I don’t know how far [the exemptions] should go, but I know that it shouldn’t be able to take away someone else’s civil rights because of your religion. Like, there’s this whole thing where a baker didn’t want to sell their cake to a gay couple, and that’s one thing, because it’s not really a civil right to have a cake. There are a lot of other ways you can get a cake; you could go to a different baker, or you could make one yourself,” she explains. “But, the ability to be safe at school and also be yourself and in the relationship you want to be in should be considered a civil right…There’s a difference between doing something because your religion says that you should or shouldn’t do it versus forcing someone else to do it the same because of your religion.”

On the contrary, some argue that the free exercise clause should protect against every law that violates one’s religion. The landmark Supreme Court Case of Wisconsin v Yoder (1972) set a precedent for religious exemptions moving forward. Previously, the standard had been what is known as “belief-action distinction,” which essentially means that any person has the right to believe anything, but their actions are still subject to and limited by the law of the land. This case involved a few Amish families that felt that their children should stop attending school after eighth-grade. These families believed that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance laws violated their religious beliefs. Eventually, the case reached the United States Supreme Court and the ruling was in favor of the Amish families. Wisconsin v. Yoder introduced the idea of compelling interest in relation to religious exemptions and made it possible for many other exemptions to be granted to other people in the future. Compelling interest is the idea that in order for a religious exemption to be denied, there must be a compelling governmental or public interest that the law in question can further.  

Because there has been no clear line drawn with exemptions from Title IX, there is nothing to compare BYU’s situation to. It has become a matter of interpretation that hopefully this investigation will make clearer. Until a decision is made, we must look out for each other and show some compassion. Faith Bryce said it best: “You shouldn’t put the pressure on minority groups or ostracized groups to only go certain places to keep themselves safe.” 

At the time this article was written, the investigation by the Dept. of Education had not concluded. Prior to publication however, the investigation was concluded. The Office for Civil Rights determined that it lacked the jurisdiction to address the complaint’s allegations because, as a university sponsored by a religious organization, BYU is exempt from federal regulations in Title IX that conflict with its sponsor’s religious doctrine

School should be a safe place for all students, and it’s our responsibility to make that happen at Copper Hills. Be kind. Talk to somebody you might not normally have a conversation with. Protect your friends. Everyone should feel comfortable and safe at Copper Hills.