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Not so fast: Honor code changes not so black and white

BYU Provo Honor Code March by Jacob Payne
BYU Provo, Credit: Jacob Payne

by Joel McDonald

I’m sorry. That’s the only way I can think to begin this post.

Last November, I wrote in response to Brigham Young University professor Hal Boyd’s assertions that the Church Education System’s Honor Code and prohibitions of any behavior that might “give expression to homosexual feelings,” was required to regulate sexual behavior. My response was to argue that no unmarried BYU student should be engaging in sexual behavior according to the standards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and any prohibition of non-sexual behavior for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students that is not also prohibited for straight students is discriminatory. Last month, I wrote again celebrating that with the removal of any mention of homosexuality from the Honor Code, the rules were no longer discriminatory for unmarried BYU students.

I watched with interest the conversations on social media in response to the Honor Code update. Of interest was that there appeared to be two camps. One group that was celebratory and another that expressed skepticism over the change. Many questioned what the change really meant for LGB students and if the change meant that same-sex couples could now display affection without fear of being brought into the Honor Code Office and possibly expelled. There were many who encouraged all to be cautious, believing that the change to the Honor Code didn’t mean what those celebrating thought it meant. Internally, I was dismissive of the skepticism. More than once I would say to my screen, “Read the policy. It’s clear. Why are you questioning this?”

To be fair, I talk to my screen a lot. Also, both my experience in writing and approving policy and current events in the Church seemed to validate that the removal of explicit prohibitions of any physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings (as vague as that explicit prohibition might have been) was indeed a resetting of the bar for student conduct.

When the Church announced that it was reversing it’s 2015 policy that labeled those in same-sex marriages as apostates and barred children of same-sex couples from the saving ordinances of the Church, President Dallin H. Oaks explicitly stated that “immoral conduct in [a] heterosexual and homosexual relationship will be treated in the same way.” On the very same day that the Honor Code was updated, the Church released an updated and public handbook of instructions where all could see that the 2015 policy had actually been reversed in the Church’s written policy. The handbook also reflects Oak’s statement, in that the standard for unmarried heterosexual and same-sex couples is the same. Both are expected to abstain from sexual relations. There is no mention in Church policy of any prohibition of any form of physical intimacy for unmarried couples of any sexual orientation outside of abstaining from sexual relations.

When I served as an elected school board member, part of my responsibility was to make policy. I helped write, update, and approve policies relating to almost every aspect of a school division serving over 68,000 students and employing about 15,000 people. What school division policy said was important. It was debated in committee, it was reviewed by the school administration, it was signed off for legal sufficiency by our legal counsel, and then it could actually be approved by the board. Failure to follow adopted policy could result in termination of school employees or legal action against the school division. What policy said, in black and white, was critical.

Having this policy background, I was just dumbfounded I read the letter from Elder Paul V. Johnson, commissioner of the Church Educational System, attempting to clarify the Honor Code changes. His letter is embedded below:

There are so many things to be angry and frustrated about in this letter. Firstly, the severe pain caused to students who felt that BYU was finally a place where they could be safe only to find out that they aren’t safe at all. I have so much respect for those who’ve taken their energy and have made their voices and faces clear in marching and protesting this past week. If history has shown us anything, it’s that engagement in the open makes change happen. It’s when we come out of our closets and refuse to take discrimination, harassment, and abuse quietly that we are empowered and the perpetrators are forced to face their actions.

Secondly, this letter attempting to clarify policy is a Hail Mary to correct the perceived misinterpretation of the updated policy, an attempt to continue to enforce a policy that technically no longer exists. The letter itself points to the new Chruch handbook and states that “the moral standards of the Church did not change with the recent release.” In this, when focusing on unmarried couples, this is correct. Again, there is no mention in Church policy of any prohibition of any form of physical intimacy for unmarried couples of any sexual orientation outside of abstaining from sexual relations. However, the letter goes on to say that even if not explicitly prohibited, “same-sex behavior romantic behavior” is “not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.”

Johnson’s letter argues that since the Honor Code includes a commitment to “live a chaste and virtuous life” and that living this principle requires going beyond any defined meaning in policy of chastity or virtue. Students must “live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.” This is where we get into very dangerous territory. Basically Johnson is saying that same-sex couples holding hands, kidding, dating, etc., is a violation of the spirit of the Honor Code. Should BYU or any other CES institution be allowed of discipline, even expel, students for violating the spirit of policy? In public institutions, this would be unheard of.

When Affirmation President Nathan Kitchen visited BYU and met with the university’s general counsel, he was told that federal and state protections allow the Church to create a university space that gives preference to members of the religion and allows them to make decisions that are in alignment with doctrine and that what may be seen as inequitable to others are protected religious tenets of belief. This may be true, but, again, there is no mention in Church policy of any prohibition of any form of physical intimacy for unmarried couples of any sexual orientation outside of abstaining from sexual relations.

A friend of mine attended a conservative Protestant university. As I walked through what was happening at BYU with her, I asked, “If the Church isn’t disciplining members for non-sexual same-sex behavior, how can CES and BYU?” She let me know that the school she attended definitely had stricter standards than that of her home church, with the understanding that admission to the university was a privilege. However, she also stressed that the university rules for student behavior were very clear. Every student knew the rules. They could recite them verbatim.

Clarity is the difference. Right now, we all know how the Honor Code was updated and about Johnson’s letter clarifying the update. However, let’s imagine lifelong Latter-day Saints 20 years from now being admitted to BYU and agreeing to the Honor Code as currently written. They likely wouldn’t know anything about Johnson’s clarifying letter. It’s not unreasonable that living a chaste and virtuous life at BYU would mean anything different than what has been expected of students their whole lives as active and worthy members of the Church. In fact, it would be unreasonable for BYU to hold students accountable for behavior that the university believes violates the spirit of the Honor Code when the students’ participation in the Church would not have informed or prepared them to live to this higher, unwritten, standard. It’s not much more reasonable to hold students accountable to this unwritten standard today, if at all.

Finally, again, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for not understanding the skepticism of so many about what the Honor Code update really meant, and I’m so sorry for how all of this is impacting the LGBTQ+ community and their allies at CES institutions emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Please know you have so many people around the world in your corner, standing with you, even if they can’t be there in person to march and protest with you. You’re loved for all you are by so many. In all of this, please don’t ever forget that.

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