PROVO, Utah — The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into Brigham Young University and how it disciplines its LGBTQ students to determine whether the private religious school is violating their civil rights.
This type of federal scrutiny is surprising and rare, especially with church-owned schools like BYU — it typically happens only in places where there are believed to be potential systemic or serious issues.
“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” said Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, a private Methodist school in Indiana. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”
Federal investigators were first alerted to a possible issue at BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after a complaint was filed in response to changes made to the school’s strict Honor Code in spring 2020.
The investigation has LGBTQ+ students feeling hopeful but also left wondering if change will come out of it.
“I’ve grown up in Utah and I understand the invincibility that the Mormon church can have. So I kind of was like, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’ But somehow, BYU escapes it every time,” said junior Christian Hunt.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner wrote the in-depth article that broke the news of the investigation. She explained that it’s very rare for the federal government to look into private schools with religious exemptions to Title IX.
“This essentially means that the federal government has some reason to believe that BYU is going beyond what it’s already exempt from doing with Title IX,” she told FOX 13.
Senior Everett Patterson said punishment for same-sex dating can range from a warning to expulsion. He knows someone personally who had to leave BYU.
“They had gone in and admitted themself assuming there’d be some kind of discipline but not that they’d be expelled from the university,” he said. “And they were expelled.”
Hunt said he was called into his boss’s office to discuss numerous complaints against him regarding tiny pride flag stickers on his water bottle. He said every time he thinks the university is making strides toward acceptance, it ends up letting him down.
“It’s just kind of like one step forward, two steps back,” said Hunt.
Patterson said he doesn’t know if change will come, but he’s encouraged that people are learning more about their situation.
“All the reasons that straight students come to this university are the reasons that we come to this university,” he said. “And the fact that queer students are held to a different standard than straight students. Because a straight student wouldn’t be expelled for going on a date. Or holding hands. Or kissing.”
BYU responded to the investigation with a statement to FOX 13 Thursday night.
"The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education opens hundreds of investigations each year, including this one at BYU and other Utah schools," the statement reads. "Opening an investigation does not mean that OCR has taken a position on the allegations in the complaint. In fact, OCR has stated that, 'opening the complaint for investigation in no way implies that we have made a determination with regard to its merits.' Given BYU’s religious exemption, BYU does not anticipate any further action by OCR on this complaint. 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. OCR has repeatedly recognized BYU’s religious exemption, including in connection with this case.
This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aim to inform readers across the state.