Complaint against BYU dismissed by Civil Rights Office
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has dismissed a Title IX lawsuit filed against Brigham Young University alleging that the Provo, Utah school discriminates against LGBTQ students by banning same-sex relationships.
The Office for Civil Rights determined that it lacked jurisdiction to respond to the allegations in the complaint because, as a university sponsored by a religious organization, BYU is exempt from applicable federal Title IX regulations.
The OCR informed BYU of the decision on Tuesday and informed university officials in a letter from the supervising attorney.
“BYU anticipated that OCR would dismiss the complaint because OCR has repeatedly recognized BYU’s religious exemption for Title IX requirements that are inconsistent with the religious principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” BYU said in a published press release. Thursday morning.
The complaint, which the Department of Education has not made public, was filed after BYU removed a section titled Homosexual Behavior from its honor code in February 2020. The section was removed when the church created a single standard for its universities and college consistent with an updated general church handbook.
Some saw the removal of the section as a license for LGBTQ students to start dating, holding hands and kissing in same-sex relationships. The church’s education commissioner issued a letter on March 4, 2020, stating that “same-sex romantic behavior” was “not consistent with the principles of the honor code.”
The clarification sparked protests at BYU and outside church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Church doctrine and the BYU Honor Code prohibit any sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. Sex outside of marriage – including same-sex relationships – can lead to school discipline.
The civil rights complaint was filed five days after the clarification. In Tuesday’s determination letter, the Civil Rights Office said the complaint “alleges that the university engages in differential treatment of students who are involved in same-sex relationships by stating that such relationships are not compatible with principles of the honor code”.
The OCR disclosed the complaint to BYU in a letter dated October 21, 2021, when it said it had opened an investigation and had jurisdiction.
“Please note that the opening of the complaint for investigation does not in any way imply that we have made a determination as to its merits,” the OCR letter states.
BYU and legal experts predicted the Civil Rights Office would dismiss the lawsuit because of the university’s exemptions.
“There will be no consequences. The exemption is very strong,” Jake Sapp, assistant Title IX coordinator and chief compliance officer at Austin College in Texas, told Higher Ed Dive last week.
The investigation lasted less than four months, including holidays. Dozens of ongoing OCR investigations have been ongoing for five years or more.
BYU first asserted exemptions from portions of Title IX in 1976. The Civil Rights Office then responded with a letter stating that it had determined that BYU was “eligible for an exemption when the application of Title IX would be in conflict with the religious principles of the religious organization”.
The OCR’s decision on BYU’s complaint is not surprising, said Steven T. Collis, founding faculty director of the Bech-Loughlin First Amendment Center and the University of Texas Law & Religion Clinic.
“There are all sorts of reasons why I just think OCR just couldn’t pursue something like this,” he said. “There is a debate as to whether or not Title IX applies in this context. If that applies, there are legal exemptions that protect schools like BYU, which is not on an island per se.
Collis said hundreds of federal laws provide religious exemptions for religious organizations when a law conflicts with religious beliefs. Dozens of faith-based schools across the country operate under similar exemptions, according to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities and others.
“Every religious institution has exemptions under Title IX,” Collis said. “Some of them are built into the law itself, and some of them are constitutional, but they are there. BYU has no special one.
BYU described one of the specific principles for which it required an exemption.
“We affirm our religious exemption from any application of Title IX relating to sexual orientation and gender identity that is inconsistent with the religious tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Days,” BYU President Kevin Worthen wrote to the OCR. in November.
OCR Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon agrees. In a letter to Worthen in January, she asserted that BYU is exempt in 15 Title IX areas like housing and admissions “to the extent that the application of these provisions conflicts with the religious tenets of its religious organization of control that relate to sexual orientation and gender”. identity.”
Tuesday’s decision followed the same reasoning.
“Because the university is exempt from the (applicable) regulatory provisions of Title IX to the extent that the application of such provisions conflicts with the religious tenets of its controlling religious organization, the OCR has no jurisdiction to address the allegations in the complaint. Accordingly, the OCR denies this complaint…,” the letter reads.
Some supporters of the complaint on social media had noted that the honor code change opened the door to the challenge, but BYU relied on the March 2020 clarification of the university’s position on same-sex relationships issued by Elder Paul V. Johnson, a General Authority Seventy.
The letter from then-church education commissioner Elder Johnson “affirms the religious principles that form the basis of BYU’s Title IX exemption on this matter,” the university spokeswoman said. , Carri Jenkins.
The letter from the Civil Rights Office included the following:
“OCR also wishes to advise the university that individuals who file complaints with OCR may have the right to file a private complaint in federal court, whether or not OCR finds a violation.”
The identity of the complainant is not publicly known. So far, the Department of Education has not released a copy of the complaint, which the Deseret News and other news outlets have requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
Worthen said BYU is looking for common ground with its LGBTQ students. The university welcomes all students on the understanding that they accept the honor code. Every BYU student commits to taking it each year.
“We also applaud and will continue to support ongoing efforts to find common ground on these important issues as we strive to follow Jesus Christ’s example of love and fairness for all of God’s children. “, wrote Worthen in his letter to the OCR. BYU reposted the statement in Thursday’s press release.
For a decade now, the church has supported efforts in Utah and nationally to legislate new anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in housing and employment, in conjunction with protections for religious exemptions. .
Church leaders call this approach equity for all. It has become law in Utah and a similar bill is before Congress. The church announced its support for such a law in Arizona last week.
The BYU survey was one of 1,490 surveys of gender discrimination in US schools.
Read President Worthen’s November 19 letter to the OCR here.
Read the January 3 response from Catherine E. Lhamon, OCR Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, here.
Read the OCR’s Feb. 8 decision letter dismissing the case here.
This story will be updated.